Blockchain Technology for Healthcare Solutions
By: Sukhbir Manku, BSc, MScPT; Editor: Nataliya Zlotnikov, MSc, HBSc
By: Sukhbir Manku, BSc, MScPT; Editor: Nataliya Zlotnikov, MSc, HBSc
How Blockchain Can Disrupt Healthcare
Blockchain technology, the secure data sharing ledger associated with Bitcoin, Ethereum, and decentralized finance, has disrupted many other consumer industries from diamonds to automobiles to healthcare.
But what exactly is blockchain technology and how can it be utilized to create healthcare solutions?
What Is Blockchain Technology?
To better understand blockchain technology, it’s important to understand basic blockchain terminology to help grasp the fundamental concepts of this exciting new world.
- Blockchain – A digital ledger composed of digitally recorded data that cannot be changed. Individual pieces of recorded data are called “blocks”, and these can be linked together in a “chain” through a specific signature/code known as a “cryptographic signature.”
- Nodes – Computers that are linked to the blockchain and function to validate each block.
- Cryptographic hash – This is a string of text that uniquely identifies a specific piece of data in the blockchain
- Decentralized network – Instead of information being stored or under the control of one authority (like a single bank), information is controlled by all users.
Stringing These Pieces Together…
A blockchain is a distributed ledger network where information can be added and never removed or edited without consensus.
The value of a blockchain ledger is based on a cryptographic hash that links block records of newly added information with each information block before it (creating a chain) and notably, each newly added block is dated and validated by a node within the network.
This effectively creates an irreversible timeline where any changes in the contents of a previous block in the chain would invalidate the data in all subsequent blocks, creating a more secure data and information tracking solution.
The distributed ledger design of blockchain means data is not stored in any single location, making it publicly transparent and accountable to all participants within the network.
This decentralized system prevents a single place of attack or failure, making the system stronger and secure.
How the Blockchain Is More Than Just Bitcoin?
Blockchain technology is consistently associated with Bitcoin and for good reason, as Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency to use blockchain technology for decentralized finance, spawning a revolutionary means to store and trade value.
However, whereas Bitcoin is oft used as a storage of value, other cryptocurrencies like Ethereum serve not only as a storage of value, but as a network that can also function as a platform for a multitude of applications.
More application-based cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies have been developed since the emergence of Bitcoin in 2009 and Ethereum in 2015, many of which may be used in the healthcare industry.
Is There a Purpose for Blockchain in Healthcare?
Not having a trusted, secure data pathway has enormously challenged the current healthcare system, including increases in data privacy breaches, inefficient health record management, and an overall inability for patients to control their health data transparency and agility.
Blockchain in Healthcare may be the next step in revolutionizing the healthcare system.
Watch This 15-Minute Video: Blockchain Meets Healthcare
Watch this short video from our Health TO November 2017 Edition in which Dr. Rhea Mehta of Bowhead Health shares how Blockchain technology has been gaining momentum in the healthcare industry.
Healthcare Data Privacy and Security - Without Blockchain
In 2017, there were 477 healthcare data breaches reported to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
These data breaches can be attributed to advanced hackers who are able to get through healthcare database security systems and utilize patient information for identity theft, opening fake bank accounts, reselling stolen identities in the black market, and blackmail.
Healthcare Data Privacy and Security Without Blockchain - With Blockchain
Blockchain technology could prevent these issues by providing a secure data centre for electronic medical records.
Hackers could be identified and stopped before any information is taken because the blockchain network is transparent, holding all participants within the network accountable and their actions traceable through cryptographic hashes.
Healthcare Data Management - Without Blockchain
There is currently no system in place for tracking patient electronic medical records across various providers, specialties, and biometric health devices/wearables.
This leaves an individual’s health history in a fragmented puzzle to be solved by each provider they interact with.
A systematic review published in 2019 highlighted that safe storage and management of patient electronic medical records, as well as patient-centric data sharing among healthcare stakeholders, were the most popular uses for blockchain technology in healthcare.
Percentage Distribution of Selected Papers in a Systematic Review of Blockchain Technology in Healthcare
Image source: Agbo et al., 2019
Healthcare Data Management - With Blockchain
Thus, if medical records and wellness data were put on a blockchain, providers, and patients would have secure access to the digital picture of a patient as they move through the healthcare system and evolve in treatment and progress.
This could be a highly useful tool in telerehabilitation as physiotherapists and other healthcare practitioners will be able to safely and efficiently access health information and streamline online assessments and treatments.
For example, in a virtual assessment, a patient's osteoporotic DEXA score could be easily accessed so the physiotherapist can best gauge how much a patient should safely load and weight bear through their lower extremities.
The blockchain would allow for more efficient medical data management and patient care by minimizing duplicate medical workups and testing, saving both the practitioner and patient time and money.
Blockchain for Healthcare Data Transparency and Agility
Personal information, including healthcare data, continues to build in value as we move forward into a tech-driven era.
Currently, a patient does not know who sees their health data or how it is being used, creating mistrust within the system, reducing data agility, and ultimately impacting healthcare decisions.
Having electronic medical records on a blockchain would allow the patient to track where their data goes and what is done with it.
This would play a major role in how research studies are conducted.
If patients grant access to their personal electronic medical records to researchers, their data can be provided anonymously through the blockchain network.
This efficient and transparent use of patient data would provide a larger sample size for the research institutes to use, increasing the statistical significance of data and catalyzing key medical findings and breakthroughs.
Blockchain in Context of COVID
Given the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, patients were more easily able to be recruited for a multitude of vaccine clinical trials, leading to the development of efficacious and safe vaccines at record times.
In normal circumstances, recruiting patients and collecting patient data can be a rate-limiting step in clinical trials and long-term retroactive analysis of therapeutics. These limiting factors that reduce the efficiency and analysis of therapeutic interventions may be mitigated by integrating blockchain technology in healthcare.
Blockchain for Rehabilitation RCTs
These benefits could also be extended into rehabilitation protocol interventions, where there is generally a glaring need for validated randomly controlled trials, as potential patients can be more effectively screened and recruited for these types of studies.
While blockchain technology is not an overnight solution for these problems, over time the use of a blockchain can help create long-term, positive outcomes for population and precision health.
Health Tech Meets Blockchain
Many health-tech companies are leveraging blockchain technology and evolving their platforms to focus on some of the challenges faced by our healthcare system today. One such company is Bowhead Health.
Bowhead Health, a health and wellness tech platform, aims to address issues in health data interoperability and security in order to truly understand how to unlock the value and knowledge potential of longitudinal health data.
The blockchain-enabled Bowhead platform lives on a user-friendly iOS or Android mobile application and enables users to work towards their broader wellness goals by tracking health through inputs like self-reported surveys, healthy habit tracking, and activity levels.
Users can monitor progress, receive badges for actions, and are granted access to a marketplace with health-related products and services.
The platform allows users to own and build their encrypted health, lifestyle, and wellness database that can be easily accessed from anywhere in the world and securely shared with practitioners and researchers.
Most importantly, activity is incentivized: users earn Bowhead's native crypto token AHT (anonymous health tokens) for recording health data and for sharing it with healthcare stakeholders in exchange for AHT.
Bowhead in the Future
In the future, the company will integrate at-home genetic and hormone testing kits, nutritional supplements, and health coaching services into the app marketplace.
Additionally, Bowhead's blockchain health data management system will integrate with hospitals and doctors' clinics in the future to make data sharing easier.
Bowhead believes a globally interoperable health data system will allow individuals to access better, faster, and more personalized healthcare, thereby cutting costs and promoting happier and healthier outcomes.
Bowhead Health’s use of blockchain is just one example of how this new technology can impact healthcare.
The future of blockchain technology within the health and wellness space is full of potential and will be exciting to follow.
Electronic Medical Records While We Wait For Blockchain Technology in Healthcare
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Connect With Bowhead
This blog was originally contributed by Bowhead Health, a health technology startup focused on removing the pain points and inefficiencies of preventive health management. You can learn more about Bowhead Health through its website, Facebook Page, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Date written: 10 Aug 2021
Last update: 19 Aug 2021