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Blockchain’s growing impact on healthcare

Blockchain can help deal with issues like interoperability, a matter that is of the utmost importance in the healthcare sector.

Blockchain’s growing impact on healthcare
[denisismagilov / Adobe Stock]

Back in 2016, author/inventor Richie Etwaru, an avowed futurist, predicted that blockchain would someday provide “an underlying fabric for healthcare.”

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Etwaru, speaking at the New York Academy of Science, asserted that healthcare had been “underperforming as an industry,” and that blockchain would provide “massive acceleration within the sector” over the next 25 years. Specifically, he said the technology would go a long way toward “building a patient-centric healthcare system where a person’s entire lifecycle and journey is tracked through this system, while giving control on how their data is used and how it’s shared while they have full access and are in charge of their data.”

It’s now six years later. While we can safely say that blockchain has not yet revolutionized the industry, there is evidence that it will in fact lead to greater efficiency, with additional prospects in the future. While in 2018, some $170 million was spent on healthcare blockchain, that outlay is expected to increase to $5.61 billion by 2025, according to BIS Research. Moreover, there is the expectation that such technology could save the healthcare industry up to $100 billion per year by 2025.

Blockchain can help deal with issues like interoperability, a matter that is of the utmost importance in the healthcare sector. It can improve supply chain management, enable data from clinical trials to be handled more securely and efficiently, and impact the insurance sector and even ensure medication adherence.

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In short, Etwaru appears to have been right: it will change the face of the industry.

Blockchain is most often associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies (though in reality, it is far more widely used). It is a decentralized, tamper-proof, secure digital ledger that makes it possible to document data and transactions. And as it pertains to interoperability, it can help break the silos that so often exist in healthcare, enabling all parties in the care chain to access information.

Blockchain is akin to a digital spreadsheet—one that is highly encrypted but can be viewed by all the computers in a given network. Any changes that are made to the information in that network (such as a patient’s healthcare information) will be seen immediately. That ensures the availability of real-time data, as well as an enhanced care journey and better outcomes.

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According to analysis by Deloitte, a health information exchange powered by blockchain “could unlock the true value of interoperability” and “reduce or eliminate the friction and costs of current intermediaries.” Moreover, the Deloitte report added:

“Capitalizing on this technology has the potential to connect fragmented systems to generate insights and to better assess the value of care. In the long-term, a nationwide blockchain network for electronic medical records may improve efficiencies and support better health outcomes for patients.”

A whitepaper issued by the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology also pointed to the need for nationwide interoperability, as that would empower individuals “to use their electronic health information to the fullest extent.” It would also help healthcare providers comply with the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law in December 2016. It bars healthcare providers from withholding information from patients or from parties the patient designates.

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Here are the other aspects of the healthcare sector that blockchain could impact:

SUPPLY CHAIN MANAGEMENT

The pandemic has been extremely disruptive to supply chains in general, and the healthcare supply chain in particular. Early on, healthcare organizations struggled to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) and had to seek out new outlets. Blockchain would enable all necessary items—whether it’s PPE, medications, or devices—to be efficiently tracked throughout the supply chain. There would no longer be a paper trail, but rather a digital record showing where a given item might be at any point in time. Moreover, blockchain could help stem the flow of counterfeit drugs, as all medications must be identified and verified.

CLINICAL TRIALS

Blockchain would enable the information gleaned from clinical trials—of which some 400,000 were being conducted around the globe in early January 2022—to be shared by researchers via secure databases, thereby enabling them to build on other studies. Patient privacy is ensured because of blockchain’s cryptography, and medical science is furthered by widespread dissemination of information, albeit within a secure network.

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INSURANCE

Deloitte notes that there are multiple ways blockchain could impact this sector, with interoperability again ranking high on the list because it would “establish trust between entities.” Blockchain could also ensure a smoother application process, enhance fraud protection, and improve record-keeping by collecting every piece of information about any given patient in the same place.

MEDICARE ADHERENCE

In the U.S., failure by patients to adhere to their recommended dosages costs 125,000 lives and nearly $290 billion annually. Blockchain can help curtail this in a variety of ways, whether by tracking drug usage or effectiveness or by using an incentive plan—i.e., the patient records their usage in the digital ledger and is rewarded in cryptocurrency.

In short, blockchain, far from being just a cryptocurrency platform, stands to make a sizable difference in the healthcare space in the years to come. Information can be shared more widely, and advances can be made more readily. The result is greater efficiency and the promise of greater outcomes.

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Joel Landau is the Chairman and Founder of The Allure Group, a New York-based healthcare group of skilled nursing and rehab facilities.

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