Healthcare organizations are currently undergoing a digital transformation, using machine learning and artificial intelligence to create smarter automation processes, faster analysis, better security and improved communication and data exchanges across multiple platforms — while maintaining privacy and mitigating risks such as adverse bias. One key tool in this effort is the use of blockchain technology to manage medical information.
The market for blockchain healthcare platforms, solutions, and services was valued at $1.2 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach $126 billion in revenue by 2030. Blockchain enhances security and data exchange, increasing the integrity of the healthcare system and offering peace of mind to patients who worry about the privacy of their health information.
“While blockchain is best known for its use in cryptocurrency, it is being used in healthcare to keep an incorruptible, decentralized, and transparent data log, all while keeping the patient’s identity private,” said Rajeev Ronanki, senior vice president Elevance Health and president, Carelon Digital Platforms. “This allows patients, providers, and payers to share information quickly and safely.”
But what is blockchain, and how exactly is it used in healthcare?
What Is Blockchain Technology?
Blockchain is a type of distributed database that holds transactional records while ensuring security, transparency, and decentralization. Think of this structure as a growing list of records, where each record is called a block. Each block includes information about a transaction (e.g., the existence of data), the parties involved (e.g., consumer, doctor, vendor), and a hash (i.e., a code that distinguishes each block as unique). Each block also connects to the block prior, forming a chain. This makes the data on blockchain much more difficult to alter because once recorded, the data in each block can’t be retroactively modified without doing so to all the other subsequent blocks. Also, since the data is stored in a decentralized network, as opposed to a central database, this enables a constantly updated record of truth that follows common agreements and protocols of those connected to the network.
Currently, there are four types of blockchain.
- Private blockchains: You must be given permission to access this blockchain by network administrators and are highly secure. This type, which is called “centralized,” is what we refer to above and is the blockchain of choice to manage medical records for the healthcare industry.
- Public blockchains: With no access restrictions or single administrator, anyone on the internet can send transactions to it as well as interact with it. This type of blockchain — which is often referred to as open or decentralized blockchain — is primarily used for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
- Hybrid blockchains: As you might have guessed, this is a combination of public and private blockchains, giving much more flexibility to how it can be used. For example, companies can build open-source technology but with enterprise-grade solutions to automate their services and improve reliability and transparency for employees and end-users.
- Sidechains: This involves a blockchain structure that runs parallel to another blockchain structure. Entries from the primary blockchain can be linked to and from the sidechain. This allows the sidechain to operate independently from the primary one. The value here is that sidechains allow users to work seamlessly across various blockchain projects. This technology is used primarily in the cryptocurrency industry.
How Does Blockchain Work?
We know blockchain maintains a digital structure — otherwise known as a “ledger” in the technology industry — of chronologically connected blocks of information that represent how data is shared, changed, and accessed. If data connected to the chain is altered in any way, a block is generated to record that information on every device on the network. To give each block a unique identifier, blockchain uses a process called hashing, so that if a block is changed, so is its hash, making changes easy to identify.
Blockchain runs on top of the internet, on a peer-to-peer (P2P) network of computers that all run the same protocol and have an identical copy of each transaction. When a person changes a blockchain, it creates a new block, broadcasting throughout the network. Once each computer on the network is notified of the change, it's permanently added to the chain and approved by the entire network, becoming irreversible, making the sharing of data incredibly secure and up to date, making blockchain perfect for the healthcare industry.
How Blockchain Technology Is Used in Healthcare
Blockchain is an exciting technology in the field of healthcare, poised to revolutionize the industry. With its ability to dramatically enhance cybersecurity to protect patient data and increase accessibility, it has the potential to truly put the person at the center of healthcare.
Blockchain technology has multiple applications in the healthcare industry, including its ability to:
- Provide complete transparency for the entire prescription process through health record-keeping, clinical trials, and patient monitoring
- Increase confidentiality of consumer health records with secured, encrypted data that only permitted parties can access
- Allow more access to real-time health information through electronic health records.
- Create data interoperability to decrease health disparities by allowing clinicians to quickly share consumer health information to medical facilities in different networks
- Enable doctors to track high-risk patients and advise and alert their loved ones in case of emergency through remote patient monitoring devices that track consumers’ vitals.
One example of blockchain technology innovation — and collaboration — is Avaneer Health, a cooperative that was born out of the Health Utility Network, of which Elevance Health was a founding member. Avaneer leverages the latest in blockchain technology to remove barriers, eliminate redundancies, and optimize care delivery.
“Elevance Health has its mass of data. Health systems have their mass of data. Other payers have the same thing,” Ronanki said. “But none of these are connected.” The founding companies of Avaneer Health — Elevance Health, Cleveland Clinic, CVS Health, HCSC, PNC, IBM, and Sentara — are now working together to take scattered and hard-to-find data and apply quality and privacy standards in a decentralized and trusted national healthcare network.
The use of blockchain technology in healthcare means a more efficient and reliable way to store, manage, and grant access to health data for both consumers and providers. This builds trust — which is paramount when it comes to healthcare. Blockchain allows patient information be shared and accessed, where granted, in real time with the highest level of security, providing greater coordination of and confidence in the healthcare industry for everyone.