We’ve all heard of cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, and the mysterious underlying technology behind it called “blockchain”.
However, what is beginning to become clear is that a rogue financial system is only part of the value blockchain can add.
Other industries, from manufacturing to consumer data protection are using blockchain effectively.
Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into how blockchain technology is being used in another major industry, and not one necessarily associated with early adoption — healthcare.
What is blockchain?
Before we continue, we need at least a rough understanding of blockchain technology, how it works, and why it's important.
Blockchain is a technology used to store complex and, often, data that you don’t want manipulated or changed over time (e.g. by a hacker).
A blockchain is comprised of two elements. First, you (guessed it) you have blocks. The blocks are simply boxes of digital data. Picture a filing cabinet full of receipts. The chain is the public database that holds all the boxes together.
Blocks in blockchains can hold any information, but generally hold transaction information, when it happened, and what happened by / to whom.
These blocks also store a unique ID (called a hash) so every block is unique.
Here’s how blockchain works:
- Some trigger (e.g. filing an insurance claim) sets off the creation of a block. That block stores whatever information its configured to store. For healthcare, that might be patient name, date of insurance claim, and other relevant information. That information is added to a block.
- Next, the data must be verified. This means that the data must be reviewed by the network at large to make sure that it checks out with what is already stored on the blockchain.
- Once the block is verified, it becomes part of the blockchain.
- Finally, whatever trigger activated the addition of data to the blockchain is completed.
Why blockchain is unique
The reason blockchain is used in things like cryptocurrency is the verification step. Traditionally, if you want to verify some data that’s being entered into a system or network is correct, you have to have a gatekeeper, who holds a master record of everything that’s happened before.
A bank is a good example of this. Banks hold records of how much money you have in your account, so that when you try and buy a speedboat with your AMEX, the boat seller can ask the bank: ‘hey, does this person have enough money to buy this?’ Because the bank (or, rather, the banking system) has been logging you digital transactions, they can say yes or no.
The problem with this setup is that these gatekeepers become incredibly powerful, and incredibly tantalizing targets for hackers to go after.
Blockchain, in contrast, verified by asking the entire network. It’s as if every single node in the network has their own record of transactions, and they’re all independent and identical. When the verification step comes up, you don’t have to ask the bank — you just go to the network at large. You ask every independent and identical record of the blockchain if the new addition of data makes sense or not. If so, then it's vitrified and your transaction.
Because of this setup, blockchain is incredibly difficult to hack and incredibly secure. It’s also extremely accessible, because it’s completely open. While anyone can see the blocks, most blockchains are built so there's no personal data scored in the block,
Blockchain and healthcare use cases
The primary benefit of blockchain in healthcare is that it solves a very thorny privacy problem: how do you give patients unrestricted access to their own medical health records, while also limiting who can see that healthcare data as it passed through various healthcare providers (hospitals, GPs, specialists, etc…)
Second, blockchain presents an opportunity for true interoperability across multiple, complex systems that span different locations, formats, technologies, and more. Because of the naturally splintered nature of the digital healthcare ecosystem, there’s naturally a lot of friction getting records from point to point. What’s more, that splintering makes it impractical to have a centralized clearing house.
Third, blockchain is positioned to reduce or eliminate data-driven healthcare mistakes. In Canada, for instance, there are around 28,000 annual deaths as a result of healthcare errors. Blockchain, with it’s security and distributed ledger, not only makes it more difficult to hack, but also makes it more difficult for a mistake to both occur and propagate through a system.
Blockchain is a new technology. And like all new tech, it’s a little rough around the edges. It’s energy-intensive, hard to work with and, right now, slow.
But the underlying concept of a blockchain, and the security, transparency, and value that blockchain enables is not only tantalizing, but paramount to our collective success in a digital world. In healthcare, the pain of simultaneous security and transparency, and the consequences of when those systems fail, are felt more acutely.
Blockchain might just be the solution we’re looking for.