We are all, to a certain degree, familiar with the complex, ever-changing world of healthcare. From the impacts of healthcare reform and an aging population to new consumer-driven choices and rising costs, the topics are numerous within the health ecosystem, but the topic that has drawn the most attention recently is healthcare records and privacy. In the past few years, use of cryptocurrencies and blockchain is seen as a promising solution to addressing healthcare pain points, including health records and transaction costs.  A study from IBM in 2017, titled Healthcare Rallies for Blockchain, found that 56% of surveyed healthcare executives had solid plans to implement a commercial blockchain solution by 2020. Healthcare companies, tech innovators and the rest of the healthcare industry are grappling with what’s possible now and what blockchain technology could solve in the future.

There are many reasons why we might want to give someone access to our medical data. Maybe you just moved to a new city and would like to give your new doctor access to your medical history, or perhaps you want to nominate a healthcare proxy in case of emergency or have your prescription sent to your pharmacy.

While the sharing of information electronically plays a critical role in improving the cost, quality, and patient experience of healthcare, there is very little electronic information sharing among clinicians, hospitals, and other providers, despite considerable investments in health information technology over the past five years. Electronic health records are often the culprit in medication errors that negatively impact patient safety. Every healthcare organization today is using some digital patient data management system. As sensitive patient data is stored as electronic health records (EHRs), health information technology (HIT) professionals are forced to adopt new strategies to securely manage and protect that data, and to be sure healthcare data management protocols comply with government regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In addition to all the challenges, hospitals and healthcare providers face a variety of unique data management challenges from government regulators, care collaboration, and data security.

The primary purpose of a health record is to facilitate communication between healthcare professionals and patients. It can also be a useful tool in providing a good standard of care. Currently, the patient bears the most risk because their personal information is subject to inaccuracy, and in some cases, they may lose critical information due to technology limitations. From a technology perspective, the current state of healthcare records is disjointed due to a lack of common architectures and standards. In other words, the health record system is outdated and running on fumes with the risk of being vulnerable to hackers. The ultimate purpose for blockchain technology within the healthcare space would be to solve many issues that disturb the industry today. Having a common database of health information that doctors and providers can access, higher security and privacy standards, more time for doctors to spend on patient care, and even better sharing of research results could drastically simplify new drug and treatment therapy procedures for common diseases.

It sounds promising indeed.  So what is a blockchain?

At its core, Blockchain is a distributed system for recording and storing transaction records. More specifically, Blockchain is a shared, immutable record of peer-to-peer transactions built from linked transaction blocks and stored in a digital ledger. Blockchain relies on established cryptographic techniques that allow participants to interact without any prior established trust. In a Blockchain system, there is no central authority; instead, users can only update the block they have access to, and those updates get replicated across the network. Interactions with the Blockchain become known to all participants.

So, where does Blockchain stand today in solving some of the highlighted healthcare needs?

Blockchain technology presents numerous opportunities for health care; however, it is not a fully matured remedy that can be immediately applied today. Several technical, organizational, and behavioral economic challenges must be addressed before a health care blockchain can be adopted by organizations nationwide. Adoption and implementation of blockchains will be an evolution over time as blockchains applications get vetted and adopted and industry professionals come together to determine collaboration and governance issues.

For a PR group, it is merely the beginning as we continue to anticipate, prepare and proactively respond to issues and opportunities that arise for our clients and their audiences.

Moving forward, I predict our key focus areas with clients in the universe of blockchain will be –

  • Blockchain Workshops – Draft a cohesive roadmap to understanding the realistic applications of blockchain in healthcare and how it affects corporate communication (both internal and external)
  • Drug development & supply chain integrity – Highlight new drug development and the war against the counterfeit drug implications that currently cost pharmaceutical companies an estimated $200 billion in losses annually
  • Medical Research – Impact of centralized results of clinical trials and patient outcomes for new treatment protocols and accelerated innovation
  • Data Security – Address issues around data privacy and security in a connected society and systems
  • Regulatory Considerations – Drive deep collaboration with industry and policymakers to understand and facilitate the growth of the ecosystem and respond to ownership implication of records.

Molding the blockchain future

Blockchain technology indeed creates unique opportunities to reduce complexity, enable seamless collaboration, and create secure, immutable information. Blockchain technology is evolving rapidly and new developments emerge weekly. As blockchain matures in the healthcare space, the financial services industry could act as a valuable resource for prior lessons learned.

The investment into blockchain technology is growing in the industry, but the level of investment is fairly low. In a resource-constrained environment, however, existing capabilities or technologies could be leveraged for near-term benefits while targeted experiments can demonstrate long-term value. To mold blockchain’s future, we should all consider mapping and convening the blockchain ecosystem, establishing a blockchain framework to coordinate early-adopters, and supporting a consortium for dialogue and discovery.