Payment Protocol to Protect Patient Privacy

The Broader Benefits of Blockchain

Blockchain_lBlockchain is the digital ledger for virtual currency bitcoin, and provides a tamper-proof, verifiable system thanks to distribution of records across participating machines. The secure nature of blockchain databases is garnering interest from a number of sectors, and healthcare looks to be next.

The global pharmaceutical industry was reportedly worth over $1 trillion in 2014. This includes a burgeoning sector of new medical technologies, and we predict that pharmaceutical companies will become the largest vertical market for wearables by 2020 (see CCS Insight Predictions for 2016 and Beyond). Technology is influencing the industry in a number of ways, and blockchain could provide some security as processes become electronic.

Medical records are already being digitized, and there are several benefits to this. Patient histories can be easily accessed no matter where in the world you are, for instance, and offer a standardised and searchable personalised database. This online data may also enable wider research on entire populations.

Of course, the Web-based storage of private information brings the possibility of security breaches, and the US Department of Health and Human Services sets out a framework for the protection of this sensitive data that stresses the need for administrative, physical and technical precautions. But the records of nearly 400 million patients have been compromised in the past five years, and a handful of start-ups is looking to eradicate this risk by employing blockchain-like techniques to protect data.

New companies aren’t the only ones getting involved. Philips Healthcare confirmed in October that it’s exploring the concept and possibilities of the ledger technology in healthcare, citing a link with blockchain-based data collection firm Tierion. The partnership could potentially focus on the modernization of patient record-keeping, but Tierion teased on Twitter that more information would be provided by the companies in 2016.

The digitalization process could be furthered to include records of legal and counterfeit drugs — another system that blockchain technology could help to enhance. At the Exponential Medicine 2015 conference, representatives from the MIT Digital Currency Initiative described how auditing keys (given to legitimate players) and a distributed ledger could provide an official record of drug production and distribution pipelines, allowing prescribers and users to check the authenticity of their medication. Initiatives such as that from Blockverify aim to introduce “transparency” to a number of supply chains, including pharmaceuticals, through unique product verification tags that can be cross-referenced with a blockchain ledger.

In 2014, Israeli start-up DNA.Bits developed a blockchain-based framework for big data collection that it hoped would benefit genetic analysis. The system would allow patients and healthy individuals to contribute to a large set of genetic examples with linked clinical histories, and this data would be anonymized within the ledger. Such an approach addresses patient privacy concerns while also presenting an opportunity for hospitals to generate revenue from patient data.

The processing power afforded by a distributed network like blockchain offers further incentives, enabling otherwise costly and somewhat unreliable processes often performed on single super computers to be improved. Stanford University introduced the Folding@Home initiative to transform its research on protein folding through the use of blockchain technology. It uses a decentralized system to harness the computing power of several thousand machines, much in the same way the blockchain architecture is used to “mine” bitcoins. Vodafone’s DreamLab takes a similar approach, instead using the cumulative power of idle smartphones to work toward a cure for cancer.

Blockchain technology could offer a range of benefits in healthcare, providing ledgers of secure, verifiable and up-to-date information as well as impressive computing resources. The digital medical revolution is building, one block at a time.

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