Blockchain, a distributed ledger technology developed to support cryptocurrencies, allows participants in a distributed network to share a string of connected and sequential transactions that can’t be modified and need no single trusted or coordinating authority.
Functionally, this means blockchain enables trust, transparency and security in digital transactions. “Blockchain is a technology that allows for the fast, efficient verification and validation of transactional data,” writes Antony Welfare, group managing director of the Blockchain Practice at Luxoft, a DXC Technology company.
Although the list of early blockchain adopters is dominated by financial institutions, technology companies, carmakers and retailers, organizations across the healthcare sector are also exploring ways to deploy blockchain — a move that could give caregivers and scientists new capabilities in fighting crises like COVID-19. The secure and transparent nature of blockchain makes it ideal across multiple use cases in healthcare, such as:
- Eliminating errors and delays in patient matching. Duplicate medical records and missing or incorrect patient information can endanger patients and burden cost providers with inefficiencies and unnecessary costs. Blockchain can enable (1) master patient indices that avoid duplication and incomplete records, and (2) single, longitudinal patient records that include medical histories, lab results, treatments, hospital stays, emergency department visits, and data from in-home and wearable devices.
- Processing claims and payments. Mistakes in claims submissions can lead to long delays, disputes and extra administrative costs for providers. Blockchain’s transparent and trusted environment facilitates the efficient and secure execution of smart contracts, thus reducing risk and streamlining the claims and payment processes.
- Data exchange. Healthcare organizations struggle with data sharing because of interoperability issues. Blockchain can accelerate data exchange and reduce costs by acting as business-to-business (B2B) middleware that coordinates data exchange among disparate electronic health records (EHR) systems.
- Patient control over data. Healthcare consumers often struggle to access and control their personal health data, which can lead to data privacy issues. Blockchain-based apps, such as one being tested by insurance giant Anthem, allow users to “open an app on their phones, scan a QR code, and instantly grant different healthcare providers access to their health records,” writes Leah Rosenbaum in Forbes. “As soon as the appointment is over, users can revoke access and make their medical records private again.”
- Supply chain security. Blockchain’s inherent transparency and immutability can ensure the integrity of drug and medical-supply shipments, making it easier to manage drug recalls and reduce fraud and lost inventory. Further, the use of blockchain in the pharmaceutical supply chain will help pharma companies meet the requirements of the federal Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA), slated to go into effect in 2024.
The benefits of blockchain in healthcare also will extend to critical research efforts. For example, the ability of medical scientists around the world to securely share data from clinical trials could accelerate the development of vaccines for viruses such as COVID-19, thus mitigating or even eradicating potential pandemics.
In addition to Anthem, healthcare blockchain pilots have been launched by Synaptic Health Alliance (which includes Humana, Aetna, Quest Diagnostics and UnitedHealthcare), the Mayo Clinic, the Illinois Blockchain Initiative and Harvard Medical School.
Research from Mordor Intelligence forecasts a $3.49 billion healthcare blockchain market in 2025, up from $2.12 billion in 2019. The biggest driver of blockchain adoption, the report says, will be supply chain management.
Obstacles remain to widespread deployment of blockchain in healthcare, including integration with legacy systems, interoperability issues and cost. But blockchain’s potential clinical, financial and operational benefits all but guarantee that the technology will be widely deployed across the healthcare sector as use cases emerge, benefits become clearer and barriers are removed.