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Blockchain in Healthcare – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Blockchain in Healthcare – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Dhinesh Muthuvel - Global Engagement Manager | November 21, 2017
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Blockchain – What, When, How?

In the ever-growing list of buzzwords in the tech world, ‘Blockchain’ is one of the most prominent ones today that rings across articles all over the web. A concept brought to light by the infamous Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008, which quickly took the form of the de-centralized currency – ‘Bitcoin’ as we all know today - is now after lots of scrutiny considered to be the next big thing in secure distributed databases. Although the identity of the founder still remains a mystery (leading to outlandish speculations that he travelled back in time just to invent the concept), the concept by itself is just as much of a mystery to many, especially in the corporate world.

This year promises to be a great one for blockchain, with companies and startups clamoring to utilize the potential of blockchain. This includes the ongoing attempts by bigger corporations all over the world to incorporate blockchain into their systems - including banks, healthcare organisations, manufacturing companies etc. – and some of them have seen some success which is expected to rise further.

So how does it work? Would you believe me if I told you, that you can protect your money by giving it to everyone else in the world for safe keeping?

Metaphorically, that is what bitcoin does! And, what’s more, one can summon the money at the call of a magic word – or in this case a unique ‘key’ that is specific to each owner of a record in the chain. It is best to start from the basics in order to understand the blockchain technology better.

Blockchain can transform healthcare via applications across IDs, Certificates, Transactions, Memberships, Smart Contracts etc

It all starts with the genesis block – the first block of the blockchain. This block holds data – any kind of data – which means it can be used to store money, IDs, certificates, subscriptions, payments – just about anything! This block has what is called a ‘hash’ – a label that identifies a block. Any data that needs to be added to the chain is added as a block that attaches itself to the last block through its hash. If that’s all it was, it would just be a simple linked list; but here’s where it gets tricky. The block that gets added to the chain has to be ‘mined’ before it is added. In order to create a blockchain platform, the mining process has to be foolproof.

Now, everyone has heard about the ‘bitcoin miners’ and how they make money through bitcoin mining. Hence, the focus should be on the meaning of mining. Mining is an activity whereby miners solve a computational problem to prove that a block is valid and had to go through some effort to be made. This is done by ‘hashing’ the block - creating the right hash for the block to be added by cross-verifying the transactions against the data of the blocks in the chain. Anyone who mines the right block is then rewarded for his/her work – a way in which one makes sure that there are more participants of the network. More miners mean more security and a stable chain and the incentive makes them stay. Blockchain explained!

To make the blockchain technology easier to decipher, each new block that is added is encoded from the data of previous blocks, which means that it cannot be tampered with unless you tamper with all the blocks related to the data changed. It’s like trying to change a word in some answer of all your classmates’ exam papers while they are continuously deriving the next right answer to get more marks – impossible. Here the marks are the reward, the data is the answer, and the exam papers are the blockchain distributed to all the participants – the students. Blockchain explained!

A little too simplified? The real nuances of blockchain are far more complex, but this should help us understand what it means for healthcare. Here’s a video with a more formal explanation:

https://www.bitcoinmining.com/

Blockchain in healthcare

As I mentioned earlier – Block chain can be used to hold any kind of data and healthcare can really use a secure way to hold data in a single format that can be used across platforms. This means the following advantages for healthcare systems:

  1. Interoperability – All the data will be stored in a single format and can be shared with any hospital at any time, ensuring process integrity and a simpler ecosystem based on disintermediation and a trustless exchange.
  2. De-centralized data storage – Hospitals and providers will no longer be tasked with handling the data of their patients.
  3. Power to Patients – Patients can choose which data to share, whom to share their healthcare data with and how much of it.
  4. Immutable data storage – No data can be lost or corrupted.
  5. Faster transactions at lower costs – As blocks are processed every few minutes and done by miners at a fraction of the costs of large third party processors.

But it also comes with its own share of disadvantages for healthcare:

  1. New technology – It’s still in its nascent stage and even large corporations are struggling to integrate it into their core systems.
  2. High initial cost - The high buy-in for the technology coupled with the huge amount of processing power required to keep it up is proving to be a deterrent.
  3. Not able to handle large data sets – Although it can handle personal data like IDs and certificates, large data like CT scans will be difficult to store in blockchains.

There are many possible cases of use of blockchain in healthcare – IDs, certificates, transactions, memberships, smart contracts, and renewals leading to automatic subscription renewals or daily payments. This all points to what healthcare payers and providers have been aiming for quite some time now – a patient-centric care system.

Possible Competition

There are a few threats looming on the horizon as well – such as Apple’s attempt to create a patient-centric health data system. Each tech company is coming up with its own use case for blockchain, and many innovative startups are trying to bridge the gaps in performance between existing data systems and blockchain. In all this, a paradigm shift can be expected in the way we store data not only in healthcare, but across all industries. Blockchain technology is here to stay and flourish.


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