In this article, we outline five key use cases for blockchain in the development of digital health:
- Supply chain transparency
- Patient-centric electronic health records
- Smart contracts for insurance and supply chain settlements
- Medical staff credential verification
- IoT security for remote monitoring
Blockchain is a powerful technology for enabling secure data sharing and access between multiple parties. This is a major challenge in digital health, where the privacy and security of medical data is paramount, but where improving the quality of care cannot happen without more coordination in management of patient data across the healthcare system and the ability to apply analytics to population level medical data. In short, blockchain can help digital health by making it easier to share data securely, with patient consent, across very fragmented healthcare systems.
See more: Blockchain medical applications
Before diving into the use cases, it’s important to be clear on what blockchain is for and what business benefits it is delivering to enterprises today.
What is blockchain for?
One of the biggest challenges around blockchain is distinguishing between the real blockchain-based applications and the hype. This is hard to do because there are still only a few large-scale, real-world implementations of blockchain beyond Bitcoin.
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Blockchain’s most revolutionary proposition, delivered through a carefully balanced mix of very advanced cryptography and in-built incentives (in the form of Bitcoin or other crypto-tokens), is that it removes the need for a centrally controlling authority and instead distributes power across all participants within the blockchain ecosystem. So in theory it can remove the need for a third-party to manage transactions between two entities that don’t know or trust each other digitally, securely and impartially. This works pretty well in the Bitcoin ecosystem, but is still being proven in more traditional business environments.
One of the key benefits of a decentralised system is that end-users – especially consumers, but enterprises, too – would have much more transparency and control over how their data is used. So one of the long term goals of disruptive blockchain-enabled companies is to decentralise the data economy, reclaiming power from Google, Facebook, Amazon and other companies that centralise large datasets for competitive benefit, and instead putting control over how personal and proprietary data is used into the hands of individuals and organisations.
On top of giving end-users more visibility and control over their data, blockchain’s inbuilt payment mechanisms could also enable them to sell it in exchange for crypto-tokens. To make all of this work efficiently and autonomously, AI is applied on top of the blockchain tracking ledger to curate valuable data sets and match sellers with buyers. (See nftgamef.com as an example of a start-up working on a system like this.)
This idea remains more theoretical than reality and could take a decade or more to materialise, if ever. However, over the last few years blockchain has been plugging away at its early growing pains – including bad user interfaces, scalability issues, and the need for greater privacy to protect enterprise IP – and has been proven to solve real but far more specific issues around data reliability and accessibility.
What does blockchain do well?
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• Tracking / registry: Recording information and data in an immutable and transparent way, whereby no party has asymmetric power over the data• Data access / transfer: Easing transfer of data between multiple parties, to create a common source of “truth”• Identity / authentication: Managing identities and permissions for authentication or verification, including the ability to verify identity attributes without divulging sensitive information• Settlements: Revenue settlement by recording movement of goods/revenues or use of services/assets• Transactions: Enabling (real-time) payments and transactions• Token exchange: Virtual currency/tokens with intrinsic value traded between multiple parties. Virtual currencies can also be pegged to fiat currencies, with equivalent values held in escrow accounts.
What business benefits do these capabilities deliver?
• Security: Blockchain is verified through a consensus system and stored across many nodes, making DDoS cyberattacks and tampering with records extremely difficult• Cost efficiency: Middlemen who take a cut of transactions can be removed because consensus mechanisms create trust through transparency• Traceability: An immutable record of all transactions can reduce fraud and protect against liability• Business process speed: Automated smart contracts can reduce time of transactions because the process no longer requires manual oversight• Token value: Digital assets can hold virtual and real-world value, such as when a virtual token is used for a loyalty points programme• Confidentiality: Collaboration between organisations can occur without sharing sensitive information, e.g. individual medical records• Neutral and equal: No one company or individual owns the blockchain, encouraging trustworthiness and longevity of the system, e.g. if one of the founding parties leaves, the system will continue to work without them
Given the huge challenge healthcare systems are facing around digitising and sharing medical records, and tracking prescription drug and other medical goods in the supply chain and delivery, it is no surprise that many are trying to improve processes in healthcare by applying blockchain technology.
Meanwhile, adopting many blockchain solutions for healthcare no longer requires deep first-hand expertise with the technology, since most blockchain-based solutions are now offered like any other software-as-a-service.
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