Curiosity and convenience, I believe, have and continue to accelerate the development of technology in modern society. As technology improves, so too do various aspects of life; allowing separated loved ones to communicate from across the globe, shortening the time it takes you to get to your destination, enabling hydraulic launch rocket coasters to propel you up four hundred feet in a matter of seconds. It seems like we have already figured everything out.
Spoiler alert—we haven’t.
In 2008, an anonymous individual (or group, for all we know) by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto released their paper, “Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System.” Since then, the applications of Nakamoto’s work continue to offer not only amazing prospects through the rise of cryptocurrencies but also prove invaluable to other sectors. Blockchain could transform the healthcare industry as we know it.
What is blockchain?
Think of blockchain as a new, innovative, and most importantly secure, database. Blockchain and databases are similar to the conundrum between squares and rectangles; just like all squares can be rectangles but not all rectangles can be squares, all “blockchains are databases but not all databases are blockchains.”
So what distinguishes blockchain from generic excel table databases? Quite simply, blockchain technology uses a series of “blocks” containing sets of information and arranges them on a linear chain. These blocks build on each other, effectively creating a timeline of information that can not be altered once each block is added.
This information is arranged on a virtual ledger that works through a peer-to-peer networking system. Blockchains are thus what we call a decentralized system, as not one computer owned by an entity holds access to the blockchain. Rather, each computer owned by an individual player called a node holds a copy of and can monitor the chain.
Because of the decentralized nature of the blockchain, the technology is extremely secure. To add a block onto the chain, a majority of nodes in the system must validate the legitimacy of the block. This then vastly decreases the probability of a hacker infiltrating the chain, as to do so would mean to breach 51% of all nodes in the system to override the suspicious hacking activity they are conducting.
Why do we need blockchain in healthcare?
So what exactly does applying this new technology in healthcare entail? To answer that question, let us examine the systemic issues facing healthcare today.
First and foremost are security and privacy. Alarming statistics compiled from the Department of Health and Human Services and summarised in the HIPPA Journal suggest that there are fundamental issues facing healthcare security today. As stated by the article, “Between 2009 and 2020, 3,705 healthcare data breaches of 500 or more records have been reported to the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights” which have “resulted in the loss, theft, exposure, or impermissible disclosure of 268,189,693 healthcare records.”
Not only are security breaches in the healthcare industry a very concerning problem, but research also shows that there are even more pervasive issues patients may be exposed to, including patient misidentification. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, “Of 503 healthcare executives across the United States surveyed for the 2016 National Patient Misidentification Report published by the Ponemon Institute, 64% claimed that patient misidentification errors happen more frequently than the reported industry standard of 8-10%.” These misidentifications can lead to false diagnoses, inadequate care, and pose many more dangerous consequences to patients. In addition, other studies exploring reasons for denial of insurance claims attribute denial of claims to data inaccuracies, “In fact, across the US, an estimated 35 percent of insurance claims are denied annually due to missing or inaccurate patient data.”
Utilizing blockchain can help to minimize these issues by serving as a method to store and share patient medical records. Due to the technology’s decentralized nature, security breaches would be extremely minimal, allowing for healthcare providers to safely exchange patient information with little risk. As stated by Dr. Liji Thomas in Blockchain Applications in Healthcare, “Blockchain can create a single system for stored, constantly updated, health records for secure and rapid retrieval by authorized users. By avoiding miscommunication between different healthcare professionals involved in caring for the same patient, innumerable mistakes can be prevented, faster diagnosis and interventions become possible, and care can be personalized to each patient.”
But why, you may be asking yourself, should you care? Mariya Filipova answers this question brilliantly in her video Blockchain in Healthcare: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, where she shares her compelling eighteen-month journey battling what she called Bertha, or the football-sized tumor on her kidney. Blockchain, she believed, would have allowed her health records to be safely stored and shared among her service providers, allowed her service providers to always be provided with the most up-to-date information, and would have removed the need for a third-party intermediary. This technology, she states, would have turned her difficult eighteen-month journey into perhaps eight weeks, of which, “eight days would have probably been spent on actual problem solving and seven weeks wrapping my head around what was going on.”
Blockchain would have lessened the burden of such a long and difficult journey for Maryia Filipova. Blockchain would help all future patients, from those dealing with simple medical issues all the way to the life-altering ones Ms. Filipova and millions more endure.
Although blockchain is a relatively new innovation, its extensive applications could prove to be just what our society needs. As we are all patients within the healthcare industry, it is essential that we continue exploring technology that will serve to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of care we all so heavily rely on. So yes, while roller coasters and high-speed cars may be cool, perhaps it’s time to add a new variable to the equation: curiosity and convenience have certainly driven technology, and now urgency is driving it too.