The tech world can’t stop talking about blockchain, and nowhere is that more evident than in the healthcare sector. At a recent healthcare information systems conference in Las Vegas “it was impossible to ignore the growing buzz around blockchain,” as one HealthTech contributor put it.
But behind the buzz and hype, what are the substantial ways that blockchain will change healthcare, and where will we see these developments first?
Healthcare data today, blockchain tomorrow
Before answering that, let’s review the importance of blockchain and data in healthcare.
We’ve all heard about blockchain, which underpins the world’s most popular and hyped cryptocurrency, bitcoin. Blockchain, a shared and decentralized public ledger, records data and transactions in a distributed (and therefore transparent) manner. Gartner estimates that the value of blockchain technologies and solutions will reach $176 billion by 2025 and over $3.1 trillion by 2030. Deutsche Bank predicts blockchain systems will record transactions representing 10 percent of worldwide GDP by 2027.
So why is healthcare especially ripe for disruption by blockchain? It’s all about the data.
One Zacks analyst puts it this way: “Given the rising need for integrating data across plans and providers, the healthcare sector is poised to gain the most from blockchain’s distributed ledger technology.”
Gain the most? Strong words.
But by feeding real-time data about patients to doctors, blockchain “has the power to revive the healthcare industry by reorganizing operations, generating new business models and integrating patients’ medical records,” according to Zacks.
The storage of patient records and pricing models are two ways blockchain is most likely to change healthcare in the short-run.
Changes to patients’ health records & medical data
Electronic health records (EHRs) have been serving as the underlying medical data system-of-record since 1999. Proprietary EHR systems powered by companies like Epic, Cerner, athenahealth and others now store voluminous amounts of patients’ critical health data. But they have not coalesced to become a national health information backbone, instead, “we’ve got a bunch of closed, kind of information-hoarding soviets that are not good,” as athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush puts it. "So that needs to be blown up in a new model."
In 2018, we may be seeing that new model take shape.
Blockchain is a distributed, validated data ledger, not a database. So while it will not replace EHRs, it can now support a more secure, universally accessible and comprehensive system-of-record.
“Currently, a patient’s medical history is a puzzle with its pieces dispersed across multiple providers and organizations,” writes Forbes contributor and President of Protenus, Robert Lord. “Blockchain could help us assemble all of these pieces in real-time and view the entire picture of a patient’s health, with the confidence of knowing it’s both comprehensive and up-to-date.”
This highly distributed, secure, worldwide access to patients’ health data is groundbreaking, providing universal authenticated access to patients’ medical records anywhere in the world.
Changes to healthcare pricing & payment models
Blockchain will also change how healthcare and medical services are priced and paid. These changes are coming thanks to the enhanced identity management, smart contracts and instant machine-to-machine communication enabled by blockchain.
For example, VC-backed healthcare API company PokitDok has partnered with Intel to offer Dokchain, a standard now supported by dozens of companies, including Ascension, Amazon and Guardian. The solution allows claims to be processed in seconds instead of weeks or months. Notably, the solution can also “validate the supply chain,” writes Ron Miller in TechCrunch. “For example, when a doctor writes a prescription, it gets logged on the chain with transparent pricing for the consumer [with] broad implications for inventory and order management of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.”
WELL, a blockchain-enabled medical service network, is another innovative company enhancing key aspects of healthcare service. The company allows patients to contract with healthcare professionals worldwide, including specialty doctors, therapists and psychologists, while facilitating real-time insurance verification and reimbursement via the company’s cryptocurrency, WELL tokens.
Instead of taking days to settle traditional payments, WELL’s tokens transfer funds immediately - through smart contracts - upon the completion of certain milestones (visits, invoice approvals). It can also make cross-border payments.
As exemplified by both WELL and PokitDok, blockchain technologies and asset tokenization will be used to address fundamental healthcare issues, including changing traditional medical payment and pricing models. In fact, they already are.