WASHINGTON — Over the past decades, politicians and entrepreneurs alike have tried and failed to solve the problem of healthcare interoperability, leaving patients increasingly frustrated at the lack of control over personal medical records.
Now, industry leaders are hoping that blockchain technology might be the answer. Though blockchain is typically associated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, it is now being explored as a way to create shared networks of healthcare data.
According to experts gathered at last week’s Blockchain Healthcare Summit here, blockchain is a dramatically better way to store, share, and protect sensitive data among disparate groups.
“If you were to do something from scratch, you would do it on blockchain,” said Ben Jessel of Kadena, a recent spinoff from JP Morgan Chase. Blockchain has a real shot at untangling the mess of electronic health records because, for the first time, it’s encouraging all the major healthcare stakeholders to come together, Jessel said.
Countries like Estonia and Australia are already using blockchain to manage health data and broker transactions among patients, healthcare providers, and federal insurance programs.
According to self-described “blockchain evangelists,” many of whom spoke at last week’s conference, blockchain will soon usher in a utopian future in which each patient has control of his or her entire medical record, easily accessible through an app-like interface.
In this vision, patients are the touchstone of their own medical records, licensing data out to payors and providers only as needed.
But according to Jim Nasr of Certara’s Synchrogenix unit, “right now, it’s just largely science fiction — at least here in the U.S.”
“Everyone’s favorite use case is medical records on the blockchain,” said John Bass, founder and CEO of Hashed Health. “I love that use case as well, but I just think it’s going to take a while to get there.”
Despite the $5.6 billion projected market for blockchain in healthcare by 2025, most blockchain applications thus far have focused on lower-hanging fruit, like supply chain logistics or physician credentialing.
That’s because protected health information — which includes names and identifying information defined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) — is considered “toxic” data, says Bass.
Despite the regulatory and governance obstacles surrounding protected health information, there are about a half dozen companies trying to create blockchain based personal health and electronic health records, says Heather Flannery, co-founder of Blockchain in Healthcare Global.
“Their work is important and valuable, but it’s stuck,” said Flannery, noting that some tech companies are skipping the U.S. healthcare market entirely and instead deploying their blockchain solutions in the developing world.
Blockchain in Healthcare Global is a trade organization whose aim is to reduce deeply entrenched governance and regulatory barriers that are stifling blockchain innovation.
Healthcare providers in the U.S. have “zero risk tolerance” when it comes to managing electronic medical records, said Flannery.
“The only way this is going to happen — and this is my opinion — is if our government partners with the providers and [becomes] part of the initiative directly,” Flannery said. That way, “providers do not have to worry about the reaction the government may have about the potentially hundreds of micro-policy decisions that have to be made to move something like this forward.”
Despite the regulatory challenges of dealing with patient data, blockchain’s ability to manage data that’s both tamper proof and anonymous makes it the best solutions to fix healthcare’s interoperability problems, according to Shada Alsalamah, a visiting scholar in MIT’s Media Lab.
“Different technologies have been tried over the years, but there are a lot of security problems, and a lot of privacy problems,” she said. If deployed correctly, blockchain can “help give patients better quality of life by connecting their electronic medical records to allow seamless sharing of medical record across healthcare providers.”
This is the fourth in a MedPage Today series about uses of blockchain technology in health care. Earlier installments included: