Healthcare requires prompt access to confidential patient information – lives can sometimes depend on it. Easy access comes at a price, though, as easily accessible information puts patient privacy and hospital data at risk. Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize healthcare by providing access to secure, accurate information.
Health information technology is becoming more crucial to the healthcare system, as doctors and nurses now spend more time typing than talking to patients, according to a study by Mayo Clinic. Health information technology is also important to patients who go to different practitioners and specialists who may not have access to the electronic healthcare records (EHR) system their primary physicians may use. Lack of access to health records can lead to repeat lab work, dangerous drug interactions, and more. Blockchain can help eliminate unnecessary repeat lab work, manage medications from different prescribers, and provide a patient’s vaccination history. Access to healthcare information is also essential for insurance providers and researchers. Many are turning to blockchain.
What exactly is blockchain?
A very succinct history of the platform; An unknown person or group calling itself Satoshi Nakamoto started blockchain technology in 2009, it was started as a way to move the digital currency, bitcoin. In the years since, the uses for blockchain have expanded to exchange other types of digital assets, such as data.
Blockchain is an activity log that is tamper-proof, time-stamped and shared across a network of computers. Each transaction going into the log, or central database, is enclosed in a block and linked in chronological order to create a public chain, hence the name “blockchain.”
The blocks cannot be deleted, changed or otherwise modified, which means that blockchain creates an indelible write-once-read-only record that a transaction occurred.
Blockchain has three main components:
1. Digital transactions – the information or digital asset stored in the blockchain
2. Distributed network – a decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) architecture featuring “nodes” of participants, each of whom stores a copy of the blockchain and is authorized to validate and certify any digital transactions on the network
3. Shared ledger – the participants record ongoing transactions in a ledger shared by all the members, who verify the transactions using algorithms; the transaction is added to the record after a majority of members validate it
How Blockchain Technology can Improve Healthcare
Information management is one of the largest problems facing healthcare today. Spread across multiple and sometimes-inaccessible systems, information may not be available when needed most; unfettered access to this information can be a security risk. Blockchain could change all that by creating a decentralized system accessible to only those who hold the right keys.
The lack of a central administrator creates transparency, in that no single individual or organization can change the information, as could happen if the information were to live in the physical memory of one system. Furthermore, all of the members of the blockchain remain in control of their transactions and information.
Each member connected to the blockchain has two keys – a public key, which acts as a visible identifier, and a secret private key. One must have the private key to unlock a member’s identity and see what information on the blockchain is relevant to that member’s profile. This cryptographically links the two keys in such a way that only those who have the secret private key can identify the member.
As healthcare institutions provide services to patients, they track clinical information in their existing health IT systems. The institution then use application programming interfaces (APIs) to direct the patient’s public (non-identifiable) ID and standard data fields to the blockchain, where the blockchain stores each transaction by the patient’s public ID. Computer software processes the incoming transactions to make them searchable.
Healthcare institutions and other organizations can use APIs to query the blockchain directly to view non-identifiable patient information, such as age, gender and medical condition. Analysis of the information gained from these queries can lead to new insights into healthcare.
Patients who wish to share their identity with healthcare organizations may do so by providing their private keys, which allows the healthcare organizations to unlock patients’ data. The data remains unidentifiable to those without the private key.
Today, most healthcare organizations rely on health information exchanges (HIEs) and other methods of centralized data aggregation to gather wide scale health data. Blockchain creates a decentralized standardized method, which ensures accountability and easy access. The structure of blockchain offers a unique combination of access scalability, security, and data privacy that can facilitate the sharing and security of healthcare information. Many more uses will unfold for blockchain technology in all aspects of healthcare, research, laboratory management, record keeping, accountability, Q.A., and even insurance.
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Frank Magliochetti owes his professional success to his expertise in two areas: medicine and finance. After obtaining a BS in pharmacy from Northeastern University, he stayed on to enroll in the Masters of Toxicology program. He later specialized in corporate finance, receiving an MBA from The Sawyer School of Business at Suffolk University. His educational background includes completion of the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School and the General Management Program at Stanford Business School. Frank Magliochetti has held senior positions at Baxter International, Kontron Instruments, Haemonetics Corporation, and Sandoz. Since 2000, he has been a managing partner at Parcae Capital, where he focuses on financial restructuring and interim management services for companies in the healthcare, media, and alternative energy industries. Earlier this year, he was appointed chairman of the board at Grace Health Technology, a company providing an enterprise solution for the laboratory environment.