In 2020 and 2021, healthcare has become an even more important sector for most countries. Although developed countries already spend huge amounts of funds on health, for example, the US will soon spend close to 20% of GDP on health, there are still a lot of questions about the effectiveness of using these funds. One of the reasons is that the current information infrastructure that underpins healthcare has largely failed to keep pace with progress and innovation.
In many countries, health information systems are quite distributed and fragmented. Personal healthcare data is created by plenty of sources — doctors, pharmacies, laboratories, hospitals, even the patients themselves through various applications. At the same time, the information mainly remains stored in isolated and inaccessible proprietary systems. This approach is considered ineffective since only part of the information is available to different parties. It complicates data exchange and restricts the ability to operate with the most complete set of information about patients.
As a result, some countries try to create a single global system that will store and protect patient information, while remaining decentralized. And one of the options to achieve this is applying blockchain technology that many associate only with some kind of cryptocurrency service. Blockchain allows you to store data in an encrypted form, as well as create a decentralized system with flexible settings for access to information.
At least one country already has experience in using blockchain for healthcare — Estonia. Estonia started using blockchain to improve healthcare data security in 2012. Today, all transactions related to healthcare in the country are processed on the blockchain, and 95% of health information is stored in a decentralized ledger.
Estonia is a pathfinder in this field, confirming blockchain can be useful not only for cryptocurrencies. Let’s consider what blockchain can give to the healthcare sector and why other countries should consider taking advantage of blockchain-based healthcare.
Patient data protection
At first glance, it seems that storing patient information in a fragmented way is safer than creating a single system. But in this case, it is also important to ask how this information is stored.
According to HHS, more than 3,500 healthcare data breaches occurred between 2009 and 2020. They resulted in the loss, theft, exposure, or impermissible disclosure of more than 260 million healthcare records. One of the reasons is outdated and vulnerable to cyberattacks software that, for example, runs about 83% of medical imaging devices in the United States.
Storing information on paper can protect it from cyberattacks and most countries use this method for various reasons. But this remains a big issue in ensuring data exchange and processing.
In turn, the blockchain’s ability to keep a decentralized, transparent, and incorruptible ledger with encrypted patient data makes it widespread for security applications. However, the transparency here is not the same as in crypto networks, where everyone can view information about the contents of the block. Instead, healthcare providers can use private, hybrid, and federated blockchains to customize the system of providing access to information. Such blockchain types can be useful to protect the privacy of medical data, as well as provide doctors and healthcare providers with a fast and secure way to share information.
Data exchange universalization
In most countries, electronic healthcare information is automatically updated and shared only within an organization or network of organizations. This may cause a time-consuming process of obtaining access to patient’s medical data by other organizations, delaying patient care. Besides, relying on limited patient data can lead to medical errors.
One possible solution to this problem is a single blockchain-based system for medical records that can be linked into existing software for electronic medical records and act as a comprehensive repository for a patient’s medical history.
However, actual healthcare data, such as doctor’s notes or lab results, do not end up on the blockchain. They are translated into a hash that is actually stored on the blockchain. Each hash is unique and can only be decrypted if the patient or the person who owns the data gives their consent. In such a single ecosystem of patient data, everyone involved in treatment can quickly share data, leading to faster diagnosis and individualization of the treatment process.
Such an infrastructure would help researchers of various diseases and medicines access a broad range of data. This would make clinical studies more accurate and help in identifying the possible development of the disease.
Improved supply chain management
One of the main challenges in the health sector is the origin validation of medicines. This aspect is especially important in developing countries, where counterfeit medicines and vaccines cause tens of thousands of deaths every year.
The authenticity of medicines can be traced through a transparent supply chain. This is what the blockchain can provide, and its decentralized nature makes the information even more secure. Blockchain is already being used for supply chain management in many industries, for example for monitoring gold and diamond origin.
Once a blockchain to track the supply chain of medicines is created, it will mark the point of origin (laboratory or company). After that, data will be recorded in the blockchain at each stage of the supply chain from the supplier to the consumer. If some intermediary decides to replace the original drug with counterfeit at one of the stages, then it can be easily identified since the entire supply chain is open to participants. In turn, having a transparent supply chain can convince some patients that legal medicine is used for treatment.
Blockchain has already demonstrated tremendous potential for transforming the healthcare sector. And as technology advances, we may be able to see even more areas where blockchain can help. For example, blockchain can make it easier to pay for medical services and insurance payments, users may be rewarded for providing medical information that is used in various studies, etc. However, blockchain technology still has a low adoption level and requires a lot of preparatory measures to create a unified system. But Estonia’s experience has shown that the transition to blockchain is possible and, in a sense, even needed by some countries.