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Blockchain: A Way to (Safely) Bring Down the Barriers to Data
By Shahram Ebadollahi, VP of Innovation & Chief Science Officer, IBM Watson Health
In this imaginary world, there would be no need to travel from hospital A to hospital B for another appointment and another round of testing; and that pharmacist, wherever he might be, wouldn’t need to be part of the same integrated network as his patient’s referring physician. Medical information would live in “digital medical wallets”—and these wallets would be carried by the patients themselves.
If it all sounds a little farfetched, that’s because it is, at least for right now. But a few years down the road? Blockchain technology holds the promise to make it a reality.
Blockchain is the cryptographic technology developed for Bitcoin to allow secure transactions without a central clearinghouse. With blockchain, buyers and sellers connect directly, and their exchanges are recorded in blocks of data on a digital “distributed ledger” visible to everyone in the network. Transactions go through when blocks are linked together using cryptographic validation. In Bitcoin’s case, the blockchain is public (transactions are anonymous), so anyone can participate and add to the ledger. That’s not quite the way blockchain will work in healthcare.
Blockchain, through its secure and decentralized data-sharing framework, will be the solution that healthcare needs
A Promising Future
The growing pool of patient data available to providers is looking more like an ocean every day: biometric data collected by mobile and wearable devices; clinical data gathered in exam rooms; administrative and claims data used for billing and insurance; and genomic data sequenced and analyzed from laboratories. Additional data sources include “social determinants” data regarding lifestyle-related factors like education, family structure, and socioeconomic status and other patient-generated data. This information is coming in from all directions, and could be immensely valuable to clinicians. Unfortunately, it is not put to use consistently today and often winds up in disarray, or locked up and unreachable in unconnected technologies.
Blockchain, through its secure and decentralized data-sharing framework, will be the solution that healthcare needs—a technological fix to a high-tech problem. And the best news is, it will be cost-effective. It is expected that organizations with legacy information systems or newly purchased EMRs won’t have to gut their existing infrastructures and won’t have to invest in major IT undertakings. They could simply access the technology using SaaS and bring their “off-chain” records to the blockchain.
Blockchain for healthcare is still a work in progress, but all signs are it’s coming soon. When that day arrives, data sharing will change forever—as will the prospects for improving patient care.