Blockchain can, and hopefully will, revolutionize healthcare. As blockchain technology becomes more prevalent, it will become easier to convince the obstinate healthcare industry to make a change. The idea of storing medical records on a blockchain has been around for some time now. It just makes sense: immutable, shareable and retrievable digital health records would streamline many aspects of the health industry. If you change doctors, they could easily be provided access to your medical records without you filling out tons of forms, or potentially forgetting a piece of your medical history.

This is more important than most people realize. Even though digital storage is becoming standard, medical records and results gathered from different medical service providers are often stored on incompatible databases. According to Premier Healthcare Alliance, “[t]his lack of interoperability costs 150,000 lives and $18.6 billion per year.” Those are pretty significant figures.

That’s why MIT Graduate student researchers Ariel Ekblaw, Asaf Azaria, and Thiago Vieira, along with Senior Research Scientist Andrew Lippman, are developing MedRec. Their system would allow for medical records to be stored and managed on a private Ethereum blockchain.

“Our MedRec prototype enables patients with one-stop-shop access to their medical history across multiple providers: smart contracts on an Ethereum blockchain aggregate data pointers (references to medical records that are stored elsewhere) into "patient-provider relationships." These contract data structures are stored on the blockchain and associate references to disparate medical data with ownership and viewership permissions and record retrieval location. This provides an immutable data-lifecycle log, enabling later auditing. We include a cryptographic hash of the record in the smart contract to establish a baseline of the original content and thus provide a check against content tampering. The raw medical record content is never stored on the blockchain, but rather kept securely in providers' existing data storage infrastructure.”

With the increase in ransomware attacks on hospitals and medical record servers, a decentralized system for storing health records seems ideal. For example, when Anthem Insurance was compromised, they lost the records of 80 million patients. This just shows the danger inherent in having a single point of failure.

Blockchain isn’t only useful for record storage applications. There are many companies and startups attempting to use blockchain to change the way the healthcare industry operates. Gem recently launched Gem Health, a blockchain network catering to the medical and pharmaceutical community. They’ve partnered with Philips Blockchain Lab, a research center looking into blockchain for conglomerate Philips. Together, they’re exploring the uses of blockchain technology in clinical trials, pharmaceutical supply chain, genomic data management, universally accessible medical records, and more.

Australian startup Brontech has launched Cyph MD, a healthcare platform based on Ethereum’s blockchain. They understood the need for accessing data across platforms, and how it influences diagnostic accuracy, as well as reduces clinical errors. Using Ethereum’s smart contracts, Cyph MD plans to create a system of one-off identity checks and online ‘identity tokens’ to allow secure communication across the entire healthcare network. Emma Poposka, Brontech CEO, said: “It is still common to see hospital hallways packed with patients filling out forms, medical staff trying to figure out a patient’s accurate medical history, doctors using insecure channels like a telephone to acquire data and a patient’s consent is still taken for granted.”

French startup Stratumn wants to use the immutability of the blockchain to ensure secure dealings between partners. They specifically hope to implement blockchain technology in clinical trials, in an effort to combat data falsification. According to The Economist: “A study last year of 137 trials found 60 reported on outcomes they were not looking for, according to their original protocol. The COMPare project, which monitors clinical trials, found that only nine out of the 67 studies it has so far looked at had reported their results properly.” This supports the argument that the transparent nature of blockchain would be a significant benefit to the pharmaceutical industry.

Blockpharma, another French startup, is using the blockchain to help fight drug counterfeiting. Through blockchain technology, they’re able to improve drug traceability, increase ease of interaction between parties in the supply chain, and even alert labs if fake drugs are discovered. Being able to easily retrieve data and prove documents aren’t fraudulent, or altered, means a company could know exactly what factory a drug came from, and trust that information.

A potentially life-saving use of blockchain technology would be for kidney transplants. Kidner, a startup mostly in stealth mode, wants to make a blockchain-based list of people awaiting a kidney transplant, because it would be cryptographically secure, and transparent. Currently, multiple transplant lists exist, though the cost of getting on multiple lists is prohibitvely expensive for the average person. A unviersal transplant waiting list would be fair to everyone.

Using smart contracts, people looking for kidneys, and potential kidney donors could be matched. When searching for kidney donors, a husband and wife might not be compatible. But a young woman looking for a kidney might have a brother who’s compatible with the husband, and the wife who can’t donate her kidney to her husband might be compatible with the young woman. The smart contracts would allow for kidney donors, or even groups of donors, to be transparently paired up, making matching donors easier and more reliable than current methods. Using this technology, it’d be easy to know exactly where you stand in line, and trust that you’ll stay there.

These are just a few ways a handful of companies are using blockchain-based technologies to revolutionize the healthcare industry. It’s not only looking like a good idea, it’s seeming more necessary as security vulnerabilities are continued to be exploited. Blockchain provides the protection and universal access the healthcare field would truly benefit from utilizing.

Jim Manning

Jim Manning lives in Los Angeles and has been writing for websites for over five years, with a particular interest in tech and science. His interest in blockchain technology and cryptocurrency stems from his belief that it is the way of the future. Read More
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