Occasional articles about what's coming in the next 12-24 months in health care IT.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
Will Blockchain Be HealthIT’s Cyber Superhero?
My previous blog post mentioned the growing problem of ransomware attacks on healthcare institutions, where the perpetrator encrypts the organization's data and holds it for ransom. Cybercriminals usually request these ransom payment in cryptocurrency known as Bitcoin.
The criminals prefer Bitcoin as currency because it is easy to transmit anywhere in the world and difficult to trace. Blockchain is the breakthrough technology that powers Bitcoin, and it may one day also drive innovative solutions in healthcare that are secure, auditable, easily shared, and patient-controlled.
Blockchain is a new technology for storing data in a distributed way. It relies on a vast network of computers all over the world that cooperate to maintain the Blockchain database and make it available to anyone who wants to query it. Computer owners are motivated to participate by being paid with Bitcoins for the work their computer does in the service of the distributed database. The contents of each record are encrypted, so that only authorized users can read the data.
The Blockchain is analogous to a worldwide public ledger, where new entries can be added but never removed. Because the database is widely distributed, no central authority has control over the data. Virtually no amount of damage to the nodes can destroy the database. In the case of Bitcoin, the entries in the ledger are financial transactions that record the transfer of Bitcoin assets from one party to another. For healthcare, the Blockchain ledger would record different types of data, requiring the development of a new approach to facilitate participation.
Can Blockchain technology work for healthcare?
While it’s clear that a robust, encrypted, public general-purpose ledger like Blockchain could be valuable, the question of how to build useful healthcare applications on top of it remains unanswered.
John Halamka, M.D. recently posted a conversation among his colleagues in which they speculated that a health record bank might be the first facility built on Blockchain. Providers and patients could add records to the ledger. Everyone would be able to read the records they contributed, but only the patient would have access to all the records that pertain to him or her. This would become a complete patient health record (PHR) that the patient could share with providers anywhere in the world.
The idea of building applications atop the Blockchain infrastructure was built into the technology from the start. Blockchain was designed to be a general-purpose infrastructural component, with Bitcoin being just the first of many possible use cases. The healthcare industry is eyeing the technology, yet needs to create more use cases.
At least one major company, Philips Healthcare, has established a Blockchain research lab and is soliciting collaborators.
Although Blockchain-powered solutions are not imminent in healthcare, the technology seems poised to emerge as the preferred foundation for applications in all industries that require secure and liquid data. The healthcare industry has the potential to take the lead in adopting a promising new technology.