While bitcoin has been dominating headlines for months, what’s potentially even more transformational is the technology behind it and other digital currencies: blockchain. Over the next few years, this simple innovation could make a major impact across industries. Here’s what you need to know about the future of blockchain in health care.
What Is Blockchain?
Blockchain is a shared, encrypted ledger that records transactions and other information. Instead of being stored in one place, like a hospital’s computer network, a blockchain is shared between hundreds or possibly even thousands of other computers or nodes.
Any changes to the ledger are broadcasted throughout the blockchain, updating all the nodes to reflect the latest information. Every transaction has a time and date stamp, offering people an incontrovertible transaction history and allowing them to verify which record is the most up to date. Since the information is encrypted, the only way to access the blockchain is with a long pass code.
With that kind of a private key, a user can only see and change information they have permission for. However, when they make a change — for instance updating a patient’s medical information — that change will update all the ledgers throughout the entire blockchain — if that change is accepted by the other users of the blockchain.
This shared ledger system makes blockchain extremely secure. For someone to hack the system and make a fraudulent transaction, say, they would need to hack the thousands of computers on the blockchain and update the ledger on every single one. If they just hack one system, people will see that the one ledger doesn’t match the others and deny the transaction.
That said, some experts have begun to question blockchain’s invulnerability.
What Are the Most Talked About Future Uses?
Though blockchain has not yet become mainstream in the health care industry, it could be soon. An IBM survey of health care executives found that 56 percent expect to use blockchain in some way by 2020.
One possible application of blockchain in health care is storing and transferring patient records. Rather than risking vulnerability and incurring administrative inefficiencies by having each hospital and provider store data on their own, this information could all be kept on the blockchain.
The blockchain is also seen as a place to store new research. Right now, this research is spread between medical journals and universities, making it difficult for medical providers to keep up with everything.
What Are the Possible Benefits of Blockchain in Health Care?
When some doctors transfer patient medical records, they still use fax machines or the mail. Not only does this waste time, but it also increases the chance that a provider is working on incorrect or out-of-date information. By storing all this information on one decentralized ledger, providers can easily pull up the latest records and avoid mistakes.
And since the blockchain is more secure, it may help prevent leaks of private medical information. Roughly 5.6 million patient records were breached in 2017, according to the Protenus Breach Barometer. Since hospitals and medical providers struggle to keep up with the latest information security systems, storing data on the encrypted blockchain could improve health care cybersecurity.
Finally, blockchain could prevent fraud. It would make it difficult for someone to forge a prescription or falsely bill a procedure on another person’s insurance since, as noted above, the only way to make these fraudulent transactions would be by hacking every node on the blockchain.
How Could It Come Into the Health Care Industry?
There are already numerous programs testing out possible applications of blockchain in health care. According to Healthcare IT News, for example, administrative and financial transaction processor Change Healthcare has created an app that uses blockchain to track the payment status of medical claims.
And Wired notes that a pilot program called MedRec has been working with information from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston to simulate what it would be like for two hospitals to exchange patient medication records on the blockchain. The trial has so far been successful, and they are ready to test with other hospitals.
If pilot programs like these continue to yield success, blockchain is likely to spread throughout the entire health care industry. It may be too early to start preparing, but don’t be surprised if that time comes sooner than you think.
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