In recent years, the healthcare industry has changed dramatically by embracing technological innovation. Several crucial factors influence the way they use technology, and these can be related to security, data privacy, regulations, integrations, collaborations and profitability. In healthcare, as in many industries, data is gold.
In research, the more diverse the data, the better the answer to all questions. A simple example is found when a person performs a search based on data derived from the population of a specific country, the result may not be fully applicable to people on the other side of the world.
Recently, the focus has been on data security and privacy, thanks to which new regulations have been implemented. These regulations could further restrict the flow of data, making data more difficult for researchers to access, but could also hamper cooperation and coordination between a patient’s care providers. (Also read: Who owns blockchain data – and why it matters.)
Sharing health data
Researchers and health professionals benefit greatly from collaboration and the sharing of electronic health data and information. However, this is quite complicated due to the diversity of tools and software used and the lack of interoperability.
Health Level Seven (HL7) is a set of international standards and guidelines for sharing data between different providers. Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), also known as “fire”, is based on HL7 and uses modern web-based API technology.
FHIR enables convenient communication between facilities, software or organizations using APIs. However, it still does not effectively manage complex issues related to security, patient consent, data traceability or identity verification. Blockchain, being an immutable ledger of transactions, can solve the problems mentioned.
How can blockchain be used for health data?
The concept of blockchain is quite simple. Theoretically, the blocks contain information and they are linked to the next block using a chain with a timestamp on the data so that it is not possible to tamper with it. (Read also: Introduction to Blockchain Technology.)
Chaining is a process in which a block contains the digital fingerprint of a previous block. Once the blocks are chained, it is almost impossible to modify the data in the block without modifying the other linked blocks. Being distributed, everyone who participates in the network (nodes) receives a copy of the entire Blockchain. Thus, it becomes difficult for anyone to launch an attack or manipulate the data, provided that the number of participants in the blockchain network is large.
The blockchain makes this possible because it time stamps each transaction, gives visibility to the transaction information but not the data itself, and copies itself to multiple computers or nodes.
Blockchain can play a role in identity and tracking permissions, controlled access to facilities, and sharing of medical records or other health data. Today, a patient can have multiple records with multiple service providers.
When a patient goes to another facility, their data is not portable or easily transferable in many cases. This means that they may end up doing the same tests or providing the same data multiple times. With blockchain, all service providers can rely on and trust a single identifier. The patient can control his data and choose to share the relevant information with the authorities concerned.
Disadvantages of public blockchain and health information
Blockchain also has limitations and challenges. For example, it is not possible to store a large amount of data in the blockchain. Most blockchain projects tend to rely on Ethereum and ERC20 standards.
The Ethereum blockchain has a cost associated with it to complete a transaction – known as “gas”. If one wants to store data, the price of gas will be high and impractical. Adopting a private blockchain can overcome this limitation. (Read also: Parachains and the Internet of Blockchain.)
The private blockchain is centralized and controlled by a group of individuals, a consortium of hospitals, or a government agency that can zero transaction fees. The other alternative is to store the data in secure cloud storage or on-premise storage and then store the hash of it on a blockchain that would be immutable. One could also take advantage of the Blockchain as a Service (BCaaS) platform offered by all major cloud providers.
The future of blockchain in healthcare
The benefits of blockchain and FHIR are significant, although it may take a conscious and significant effort to reorganize and realign computer systems in order to take advantage of these technologies.
Public blockchain may not be suitable for storing all electronic health records, as it would be inefficient and expensive. Establishing a private blockchain can be an alternative, depending on how it is managed and executed. Organizations and businesses can choose to use cryptocurrencies to monetize data and encourage data sharing for a variety of reasons such as research, clinical studies, or insurance.
Ideally, the owner of an individual’s data should be the individual themselves and should have full control over their data. Over the next few years, many healthcare organizations may turn to these technologies to improve their collaboration with other organizations and provide patients with a better overall experience.