Of all the sectors that could be revolutionised by Blockchain, healthcare is near the top of the list. This is an industry that relies absolutely on trust and security when it comes to the keeping of records.
Multiple documents and snippets of information are handled by a host of different practitioners and organisations and all are critical to your health and wellbeing.
But if you were asked to send a new specialist your records; how would you go about doing that? Bringing together the puzzle of your medical history is a pain involving various sources, lots of back and forth communication and, unless you’ve got superpowers and an infinite amount of time, resulting in a picture that is incomplete.
It’s a puzzle that healthcare professionals have contended with forever and its only getting more difficult as data volumes grow and digital platforms allow more people to see and participate in the creation and updating of medical records.
For an industry that is drowning in data, clearly blockchain can offer a solution. We know blockchain is a decentralised record of transactions distributed securely across a network of peers (see last month’s column if this doesn’t make absolute sense to you, or you need a refresher).
For patient health records, this type of technology is genuinely a game-changer, providing a comprehensive, trustworthy, up to date and verified history of all medical interactions.
It’s a big deal, although still some way from being used at your next GP appointment. In Estonia, the tech (and blockchain in particular) trailblazer of Europe where 100% of medical records are already stored online, blockchain is just being tested.
And, with the greatest respect to the outstanding work being done in Estonia on a range of tech challenges, we’re talking about a population of 1.3 million. The NHS is faced with handling the data for 55 million people in England alone.
Still, to provide one of many examples, there is a UK pilot underway which started this month between blockchain start-up Medicalchain and the Groves Medical Group who have 30,000 patients. These are baby steps of course but there is a sense that there is an appetite for DLT technology to be tested and implemented as soon as possible.
In fact, a recent report by The Economist Intelligence Unit for the IBM Institute for Business Value in a global study found that 56% of healthcare executives had plans to implement a blockchain solution by 2020. The healthcare industry is moving towards blockchain fast, potentially even faster than financial services.
It’s not just in patient records that we could see the impact. Drugs stand to benefit in the same way as any other industry from the use of blockchain in supply chains to verify and authenticate. If all medical data can be stored as blocks in a chain this opens up the possibilities for a wealth of new patient data coming from wearables and other forms of IoT (data which at the moment is not reaching the professionals who could really use it).
Think about how medical research and pharmaceuticals could benefit from access to every day data on the health of tens of millions.
The list goes on.
Blockchain could serve to simplify and create security, efficiency, trust and visibility in data lowering the time it takes to manage and potentially taking some of the strain off the NHS which as we know is already pushed to the limit.
Of course, this technology is not a panacea. Many things stand in the way of blockchain revolutionising the healthcare sector. Firstly, there is simply a huge amount of data to be migrated, there are a large variety of systems hosting patient record data, while the process for adding and verifying new data on a blockchain is still slow.
This will no doubt be vastly improved in the near term, but it remains a significant barrier. Equally, a change like this represents a huge improvement for the sector but also a huge challenge and one that will require significant long-term investment to get it implemented right.
Factor in the tight budgets across the public sector and the slow and rarely smooth political decision-making process and it becomes clear that this is no quick fix.
Still, it is a fix which is clearly not only wanted by practitioners but badly needed in a sector where countless hours and taxpayer pounds are being wasted on data management systems which, with the arrival of blockchain across many sectors could soon begin to look more and more outdated.