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What is Blockchain Technology?

What if there was a way to secure all patient data that could be more efficient, secure and allows for any healthcare organization to access it?

Good news – there is. Blockchain technology emerged to log and track Bitcoin transactions, but the system itself can be tailored to healthcare industry needs as well.

According to Deloitte, the technology “has the potential to transform healthcare, placing the patient at the center of the healthcare ecosystem and increasing the security, privacy and interoperability of health data.”

It’s sure to be a hot topic at the 2018 HIMSS conference – many sessions are planned to discuss its influence on the healthcare sector. But what exactly is it?

Essentially, blockchain is a system built on virtual “blocks.” Every time a transaction is logged, it becomes a block and stays in chronological order.

The blocks are joined together to form the blockchain. The blocks cannot be changed – each one is an inerasable record of a transaction.

Only the people who have the private key to the block can access it. Its promise for more security gives those in the healthcare sector hope that the technology’s framework can change the face of health informatics in a few ways.

Easing the Interoperability Transition

Healthcare organizations across the country have been pushing for interoperability, which would make it easier for doctors and nurses to access patient data from anywhere without waiting on data transfers from other organizations. Currently, health data records are not uniform and it’s not easy to create a safe and secure transfer of data.

If, however, organizations adopted a nationwide blockchain transaction layer, they could then store the data in the blockchain and anyone with the patient’s specific key could access their protected data at any time. Additionally, a layer storing simple data that does not specifically identify a patient or reveal protected health data could provide researchers access to a huge data set that they could use to recruit patients to the organization.

The Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health Information Technology has a roadmap that defines clear goals for interoperability, which include:

  • A ubiquitous, secure network infrastructure
  • Verifiable identity and authentication of all participants
  • Consistent representation of authorization to access electronic health data information

Implementing blockchain technology could aid immensely in these goals, according to Deloitte.

Automation and Enhancing Security

Blockchain can also be automated to assist with tasks that human error could influence. For example, if the blockchain is automated for adjudication, it can make the decision to deny or pay a claim. The same concept could apply to supply chain to monitor contracts, according to Healthcare IT News. Automation could also create a more efficient billing and payment process, as well as track pharmaceutical prescriptions.

The system blockchain runs on is decentralized, meaning it’s stored across several computers and not just one server. This makes it much more difficult for the system to be hacked, and users can monitor when records are accessed and who accessed them. Since the blocks can’t be changed by anyone, no one can go in and modify records either.

The country of Estonia has already begun efforts to store the health data of its citizens on a blockchain, partnering with data security startup Guardtime to do so, according to Coindesk.

“In guarding sensitive records, the danger is that they could be altered, deleted, improperly changed or updated, affected by hackers, malware, system issues, etc. The blockchain in this case can prove the integrity of the record, and everything that has happened to it over time,” said a Guardtime spokesperson in an interview with Coindesk.

Challenges to Consider

Running blockchain does require a lot of computing power. In fact, the blockchain that Bitcoin uses consumed more power than 159 of the world’s countries in 2017, according to PowerCompare. If Bitcoin usage continues growing at its current rate, it will consume all the world’s electricity by 2020.

Of course, a smaller organization’s blockchain would not consume as much power, but it would still need a decent amount of computing power to run it. Healthcare organizations will need to consider how they can best run a blockchain before implementing it.

Along with computing power comes the cost of operating blockchain. The costs are not yet known, according to Deloitte, but organizations will spend a lot of time creating it and implementing it, as well as running and updating it.

However, blockchain can also negate a lot of traditional operating costs like continual need to troubleshoot current systems and perform backup and recovery tasks. Once a blockchain is set up, the parameters are absolute, meaning there is no backup needed, and the records are inerasable, taking away the need for recovery efforts.

The Future of Blockchain in Healthcare

Blockchain has the potential to unite healthcare organizations and create a universal process that would increase data flow, reduce costs and improve patient experiences, according to HIMSS. In order to take advantage of blockchain’s full potential, healthcare organizations need to begin implementing pilot programs and organizing their efforts.

Capitalizing on the technology gives organizations a chance to link their systems and standardize data collection processes across the country, which could improve efficiency and rate of better patient outcomes.

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