Why Blockchain Matters for Healthcare

Posted November 29, 2017
By Julia Zehel

When blockchain technology first emerged, it was little more than a curiosity with limited potential for legitimate use. Now, most of us only know of blockchain, if at all, as the technology supporting cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

In other words, while it offered an interesting approach to distributed financial transactions—a list of records, known as “blocks,” linked and secured using cryptography to record transactions between two parties—there was little sign initially that blockchain technology would kickstart a revolution in secure information sharing.

Over the last few years, however, the list of potential blockchain technology uses has grown both dramatically and meaningfully. While that list includes a wide range of financial applications, just about every major industry—including healthcare—has been affected by blockchain’s emergence and fascinated with exploring the potential use cases the technology could offer.

For example, new healthcare information sharing models are emerging in which health organizations direct information to the blockchain, attach unique identifiers to information, and then query the blockchain for that unique information as needed. Not only a new method for sharing data for providers, patients will have a private “key” which links their identity to blockchain data, and only those with whom the patient shares that key can access the data. This is, perhaps, one of the more revolutionary possibilities of the blockchain, as patients have never had—in the history of medicine—unfettered access to all of their medical data in one place.

New uses for the healthcare blockchain

Drawing on these new models for secure health data sharing, the blockchain model is allowing companies to develop new approaches to existing healthcare technology issues.

Here, courtesy of research firm CB Insights, are some examples of how blockchain models are being used to reconstruct the way healthcare technology works.

New approaches to data sharing

PokitDok is a San Mateo, California-based developer of APIs for healthcare sectors such as claims, pharmacy, and identity management. It already connects to 650 trading partners in these sectors, and also permits unrelated healthcare providers to exchange information on patient management basics like EMR scheduling, eligibility, and identity management.

The vendor is now expanding its efforts with a new product known as DokChain which uses blockchain to automate core processes that span healthcare encounters including patient identity matching, prior authorization, referrals, and dynamic, autonomous claims adjudication. In other words, PokitDok is hoping to step up its interoperability game leveraging blockchain’s unique qualities, notably the ability to conduct secure transactions across various players.

Rethinking the HIE model

Patientory is preparing to take the HIE model and transform it into something different and better using blockchain. The Atlanta-based startup hopes to change the dynamics of the HIE by building a HIPAA-compliant blockchain-based health information sharing network.

By basing its HIE model on blockchain, Patientory can put patients in the center of the data exchange network and give them direct control of their medical records. Unlike the present, in which patients need to request providers to send copies of the medical information where needed, patients will control the central repository of health data and grant access as they see fit. In an unusual twist, patients will need a digital currency known as PTOY to access the vendor platform offering secure health information storage.

Next-generation health claims management

Venice, California-based Gem has built blockchain applications for healthcare and supply chain management and is doing a few of the same things its competitors are, but its core focus is uniquely different.

While DokChain is planning to support financial transactions in healthcare, such as prior authorization for patient service coverage, Gem is digging more deeply into these functions. Its platform, GemOS, is designed to let all participants in the healthcare claims and reimbursement system view patient claim processes in real time to improve reimbursement speed and transparency during the claims process.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Gem is partnering with Philips to see how blockchain can be deployed to integrate data from outside provider processes, such as wearable health devices and employee wellness programs.

Researchers explore healthcare blockchain

In addition to traditional startups, researchers are getting into the blockchain-for- healthcare game. For example, working with John Halamka, Chief Information Officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, a group of researchers at the MIT Media Lab have developed a prototype system known as MedRec to track who has permission to view and change records.

One way in which MedRec is unique is that it has found a place for miners, a group of standard participants in worlds like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In those environments, miners verify data on the financial blockchain and in return, are rewarded with some of that currency.

To foster the participation of miners in its system, MedRec encourages medical researchers and healthcare professionals to mine the health data. They are then given access to aggregated, anonymized data from patients’ records which can potentially be used for research studies.

Helping healthcare accelerate adoption

With blockchain beginning to extend into verticals from security to claims, it can be challenging for health tech companies to figure out how they can leverage this exciting-yet-untested technology. The truth is that true adoption of innovation in healthcare takes time, and despite the enthusiasm around it, the true potential of blockchain can only be realized if it’s invested in—and adopted by—a multitude of organizations.    

This need for collaborative innovation is why Hashed Health was founded. A consortium of healthcare companies that are dedicated to accelerating the implementation of blockchain in healthcare, Hashed Health focuses on solving business problems through the use of the new technology. Their team of blockchain experts guide product development and management, help companies adhere to regulatory standards, and provide support services for a wide range of blockchain solutions.

Within any industry, It can be difficult to make sense of an emerging technology, and healthcare is no different. But with companies like those above working together and figuring out how to bring the technology to market in meaningful ways, it won’t be long until the promise of blockchain is realized.

A new health tech horizon

As the uses for blockchain use in healthcare evolve, it seems clear that the health IT industry could be changed by its many applications. If healthcare can truly leverage blockchain approaches, the industry would be poised to streamline insurance processing, improve the HIE model substantially, and connect distributed EMR information. When we look at the possible use cases across healthcare, it’s clear that if we can figure out how to effectively (and safely) use blockain, then we’re on the verge of little less than a revolution—and this is just of dawn of blockchain innovation.

Still, what may be the most exciting change afoot is that it looks as though patients will have fine-grained control of who can read their private healthcare information and be able to limit with whom they share it. After decades of chasing their medical records, patients may finally get the control they deserve.