HIT Think

How blockchain can solve some of healthcare’s ills

In its 2018 Global Blockchain Survey, Deloitte found that 74 percent of respondents see a compelling business case for blockchain technology, and of those respondents, more than half expect their organizations to deploy a blockchain application during the next year.

This underscores industry analyst firm IDC’s prediction that worldwide spending on blockchain solutions will reach $2.1 billion this year alone, and potentially reach $9.7 billion by 2021.

Interestingly, despite growing interest and investments, the Deloitte survey also found that a significant percentage of respondents believe that blockchain is overhyped.

While these data points might appear to conflict with one another, I don’t see it that way, especially for healthcare. This is an accurate reflection of not only the enthusiasm around blockchain’s potential, but also the unavoidable overload that accompanies anything new.

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To be sure, blockchain is a nascent technology. It is still unclear where the technology will work best, or when we can expect widespread deployment of those applications. In other words, we have some ideas and are working on pilot projects, but the killer app (or apps) for blockchain has yet to emerge. We are confident that as is the case with many raw technologies, those applications will materialize.

What we can collectively be sure of is that blockchain promises to disrupt and fundamentally change the way that every industry conducts business.

In healthcare, blockchain offers the opportunity to improve data accessibility and interoperability with broad application for functions as varied as clinical care, supply chain and reimbursement.

Healthcare is one of the most data intensive industries, but organizations largely fail to capitalize on the power of most of that data. Disparate systems have created layers of siloed data across the industry. This has made it difficult, and at times impossible, for stakeholders—hospitals, insurers, payers, group purchasing organizations and manufacturers—to share and analyze data in a meaningful way. This is one of the root causes for much of the inefficiency and waste with which the healthcare industry struggles.

Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize how the industry thinks about and processes information, not only from a business perspective, but also as consumers. It eases communication, particularly how data is communicated as a function of the Internet.

Blockchain, as a decentralized and transparent public ledger, records transactions using digitally encrypted blocks, and it is ideal for sharing data in real-time.

For healthcare, this presents the opportunity to improve every aspect of the industry, from clinical care and supply chain—all the way to research. Blockchain is applicable anywhere disparate data exists, such as clinical records, medical devices, insurance records, payer files and supply chain.

To understand blockchain’s potential impact, let’s look at a common stumbling block in the industry today, what can be described as “understanding the who.”

Today, a patient is identified by a wide range of numbers (Social Security, insurance, medical record and more) that all mean the same thing—it’s Patient A. For stakeholders, tying those various numbers to one individual requires a bit of detective-like, cross-referencing work. Now imagine if that process could be eliminated. One number connects to all the other data for Patient A. Every stakeholder could use their own number for that patient, but it would all reference the same thing—Patient A.

Blockchain would enable the same opportunities with business entities as well, tying together key identifiers, such as ship-to numbers, GLNs and postal code addresses, to name a few.

This opens a door to nationwide medical record interoperability. Today, most patients’ medical histories are spread across multiple providers and organizations (insurers, pharmacies and others). The dispersion of the data is very challenging to patients, creating hurdles to accessing information to view, correct and even distribute to those who need the information. This also means there is no unified view of a patient record. Blockchain could link these multiple data sources to create a single, real-time picture of the patient that they can carry with them.

The industry is still in the early stages of utilizing blockchain, determining what will be the killer app and making it sustainable. However, one thing is clear: success will require the healthcare industry to work together. Blockchains are built for huge volumes of disparate data. One-off initiatives won’t capitalize on the technology’s strength and will fall short of delivering real results, if any at all.

Additionally, not everything will be a fit for blockchain. For example, there’s little reason to blockchain-enable ERP systems. Organizations that hope to capitalize on the technology’s strength should first begin by understanding the technologies that are currently in place and business functions they serve. If the process is already efficient, it’s not fit.

Understanding and embracing a disruptive technology is both exhilarating and terrifying. To be sure, there are still lingering questions to be answered regarding the best use cases, security and even the cost-efficiency of blockchain. But at the highest level, healthcare’s data problem is holding back the industry from meeting its collective goals of delivering the best patient care while stripping waste and inefficiency out of the system.

We have an obligation to explore, and even adopt, new technologies that offer the potential to help transform the industry and meet these critical goals.

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