At this point, just about every person and their grandma has heard of blockchain. Mainstream news outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal routinely feature the technology as a potentially disruptive force in tech. Financial news organizations like CNBC regularly update viewers on the price of this cryptocurrency or that ICO. Dozens, if not hundreds, of websites have popped up to cover the rise of blockchain and cryptocurrency.

Thus far, blockchain has started to transform different parts of the financial and logistics industries. But, how will blockchain impact healthcare, if it even disrupts the field at all?

Healthcare stakeholders are known for being allergic to change and skeptical of new technologies. After all, people’s lives and livelihoods are at risk. Unlike some other industries, healthcare companies have to prove new products will lead to better health outcomes or more efficient care before they can even be introduced to the market at large.

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As blockchain becomes more mainstream, will hospitals, payers, pharma companies, medical device manufacturers, and other organizations adopt it? Only time will tell.

Forward-thinking medical institutions like Mount Sinai have opened up blockchain research centers, but other people and institutions appear more reticent to embrace blockchain as the backbone of a new world order.

We can’t predict when healthcare organizations might widely implement blockchain solutions. However, in this article, we will discuss how several companies and startups are already using the technology to innovate.

What is Blockchain?

You’re probably familiar with the concept of a ledger. Ledgers keep track of different transactions. For example, accountants use ledgers to track their clients’ assets, liabilities, income, expenses, and capital.

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In the past, accountants and bookkeepers stored ledgers in actual books, but most people now store ledgers in spreadsheets. Typical software-based ledgers store data and information in one database or location.

At its core, blockchains are ledgers, recording transactions or activity in blocks. However, instead of storing all of the transactions in just one centralized location like a standard ledger, blockchains record them in thousands or millions of databases at the same time.

Even if one or several computers on a particular blockchain are compromised or destroyed, the rest of the computers that store it will still have an accurate record of the ledger’s actual transactions. For example, if a large number of Bitcoin node computers, which record the network’s transactions, are knocked out tomorrow, the remaining computers will still have a comprehensive history of these transactions. Because it’s very unlikely that hackers or other nefarious groups would be able to compromise all of the machines that record Bitcoin transactions, the network’s distributed nature makes it more secure.

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As you can see, data stored in a blockchain is more secure than data stored in one database or a single location. With this brief overview of the blockchain, let’s discuss some of the ways innovators have already applied it to healthcare.

The Secure Analysis and Sale of Healthcare Data

Healthcare data is valuable. It can help researchers and companies identify potential new treatments and prove or disprove the efficacy of specific products. As the value of healthcare data rises, bad actors will increasingly try to steal it or improperly sell it. Research indicates that hackers value it more than any other type of data, including personal financial information. While 18% of security incidents from 2015 focused on financial data, 23% targeted personal health information.

Blockchain startups like EncrypGen and Doc.AI are attempting to solve these issues.

With EncrypGen, users can secure their depersonalized genetic data and make it available to research scientists. Each time someone uses an EcrypGen user’s data, that person then receives compensation in the form of DNA tokens, which they can then convert into $USD. In addition to allowing users to monetize their genetic data, EncrypGen secures it on the blockchain.

Similar to EncrypGen, but broader in scale, Doc.AI allows users to collect all of their healthcare data from providers, anonymize it, and then store it on the company’s blockchain.

Then, Doc.AI users can temporarily share their anonymized data with scientists for use in research trials.

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With these blockchain applications, patients receive compensation and control over how researchers use their healthcare data. At the same time, research organizations can potentially access data that will allow them to complete faster and more extensive trials.

Time will tell if sponsors, research sites, and patients end up using these products. However, their potential is exciting.

Healthcare Data Transfer

Several blockchain startups are focused on enabling smoother access to and transfer of healthcare data.

One company in this space is Patientory, which connects with any EHR system, stores EHR data on the blockchain, and then allows providers and patients to communicate and share data via one platform.

Medicalchain wants to create an entire EHR on a blockchain. By storing users’ data on the app, Medicalchain plans to make it easy for them to receive treatment via telemedicine and license their data to research institutions.

The secure transfer and storage of EHR and medical data on the blockchain is a promising idea, yet it will require widespread buy-in from health systems, hospitals, and other providers to be successful. If products like Patientory and Medicalchain overcome this hurdle, they will undoubtedly have a meaningful impact.

Blockchain and Pharma

Counterfeit pharmaceuticals lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Governments and pharma companies recognize the severity of this problem, but because of its complexity, they don’t have many solutions.

Several entrepreneurs believe blockchain applications can successfully combat counterfeit pharmaceuticals. As one example, BlockPharma has developed a blockchain solution to track drugs as they move through each step of the pharma supply chain.

By tracking pharmaceuticals as they move from supplier to manufacturer to distributor to the pharmacy in permanent blockchain records, BlockPharma customers can ensure that no counterfeit products enter the market.

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Chronicled is another company that wants to use blockchain to secure the pharma supply chain. The company’s pharma product, called The MediLedger Project, aims to create a DSCSA-compliant open network for the industry’s supply chain.

Ending the sale of counterfeit drugs is a noble goal. However, it’s unclear if these blockchain products will accomplish it because they require buy-in from the entire pharma supply chain.

Without the support of regulators or leading companies, selling blockchain-based supply chain management solutions to pharma suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers may be untenable as a go-to-market strategy.

Other major corporations are exploring blockchain’s potential as a solution to the opioid epidemic. Intel, Johnson & Johnson, and McKesson Corp planned to conduct an experiment this spring to test the feasibility of using digital ledgers to track drugs as they travel from the manufacturer to patients. These companies hope that blockchain will help them determine when certain painkillers leak out of the supply chain. They also want to evaluate blockchain’s potential for determining when addicted patients take out opioid prescriptions from multiple doctors.

When you consider that on average 115 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day, any help from blockchain applications in solving this crisis is welcome.

Data Security

Securing patient data is another high-potential use case for blockchain products as healthcare data breaches, and cybersecurity issues continue to grow.

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Guardtime, a 150-person startup based in Estonia, signed a deal with Estonia’s eHealth Authority in 2017 to secure more than 1,000,000 residents’ healthcare records with a blockchain application.

With this momentum, Guardtime then landed another deal with a provider in the United Arab Emirates to use blockchain technology when securing patients’ records.

In addition to commercial momentum to secure healthcare data via the blockchain, academic research has shown promise in this area too.

For example, widely cited articles from researchers at institutions in the U.S. and abroad suggest that blockchain has interesting potential as a method for securing healthcare data.

Thanks to blockchain’s clear and compelling value proposition for security and the fact that providers, payers, and other healthcare stakeholders increasingly face cyber threats, there is a good chance that it will play a more meaningful role in healthcare.

Overall Expectations for Blockchain in Healthcare

With the quick rise in the value of blockchain tokens and solutions, many media outlets have hyped the technology as the “next big thing.”

On the other hand, some technology experts argue that blockchain doesn’t have any scaleable use cases and suggest that industries like healthcare, banking, and law don’t have any need for a “distributed, encrypted, anonymous ledger.”

If you work in healthcare, it certainly makes sense to learn about how blockchain may affect the market. At the same time, it’s important to have realistic expectations. After all, technological advances in healthcare, even those with plenty of excitement and a clear ROI, can still take decades to spread throughout the industry.

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