Health care is one of the most exciting and essential civic topics of our time. And blockchain is one of the most consequential technologies coming of age right now. So it's not surprising that, together, they stand a considerable chance of doing a lot of good in a lot of new ways.
Since it can sometimes be challenging to tell fiction from reality, especially with so many buzzwords flying around, let's take a look at some of the practical ramifications of bringing blockchain into modern health care.
Most of these are only now getting off the ground, but each meets a different need, and each has already shown considerable potential in the many pilot programs launching right now in health care, facilitated by technology and data companies like IBM. Here's a look at what's coming.
Health Care Supply Chain
In the health care supply chain, blockchain can verify the origin of high-stakes medical shipments such as vaccines, antibiotics and medical devices, as well as create a permanent record of every time items change hands during their journey.
The industry is already bustling with the potential implications, with partnerships getting announced all the time between health care systems and logistics companies that work with artificial intelligence, data services and, of course, blockchain.
One of the significant challenges in delivering high-quality health care is the two-pronged task of verifying both the origin and the authenticity of each health care - related shipment. Counterfeit drugs are an urgent and potentially deadly ongoing problem in the worldwide health care supply chain, which is why high-tech blockchain-based logistics solutions are so exciting, while also being elegant in their execution.
Collectively, the health care industry loses $200 billion a year to the problem of counterfeit drugs. This is, of course, only one way to measure the problem. But blockchain in this context will add another layer of oversight alongside familiar verification and regulatory methods, like serialization and "track and trace." The U.S. Drug Supply Chain Security Act, which got lost in the news churn even in 2013, envisions a bold 10-year plan for rolling out a blockchain-based shared ledger so health care players large and small can all be on the same page when it comes to chains of custody and product sourcing.
Vetting and Credentialing Health Care Workers
When it comes to vetting health care workers, nurses, doctors and independent practitioners, blockchain represents a way to create trustworthy, unduplicable credentials for people who work with patients and around high-value medical records.
You can imagine the consequences — or maybe you don't have to — when people without doctoral certification or experience begin dispensing suspect advice or even prescriptions onto the general public. Because of the high stakes concerning patient well-being and doctor-patient confidentiality, there has already been a call for the development of an open-source credentialing system built on the blockchain. Health care workers are just one obvious application — the technology stands to help professionals of all kinds create a permanent, unduplicable record of each of their milestones and achievements, including degrees and certifications.
Seamless, High-Security Data Sharing
The sharing of information is vital in the health care space, and not just between doctors and patients, but also between billing entities and medical facilities, and between nurses and other staff. The blockchain is the elegant answer to the WHO's and multiple governments' calls for more public-private investment in advanced data infrastructure in hospitals.
As things stand, we've already come a long way from the days of faxing patient records and hoping our new doctors successfully take stewardship of our surgical procedure histories, medication charts, current bloodwork, blood pressure and activity data and more. A confluence of public-private efforts has legally required health care systems throughout the developed world to use secure communication methods and electronic patient records.
Experts rightly tout it as the next significant step forward for the administration of general health care and other social safety programs, like Medicare and Medicaid. And, predictably, blockchain will improve the often-complicated intersection of health care entities by providing the same kind of verifiable credentials it will bring to health care workers, and ensure that when data changes hands, each party knows the transmission is secure, the information is intact and that any changes will be immediately reflected and logged.
Fewer Transactional Moving Parts and More
In an industry where there are so many lives and dollars hanging in the balance, some of these blockchain applications for health care feel like they're coming not a moment too soon. Bureaucracy slows down the delivery of timely health care outcomes just as it slows everything else down. And blockchain is, at its core, the utter elimination of bureaucracy. Investments and partnerships are rolling out even now, and excitement is high in health care systems across the world about the promise of substantially reducing the moving parts in billing transactions, vetting patients and doctors, exchanging medical records and more.
The endgame for blockchain in health care is fewer, but stronger, trust mechanisms in every interaction between patients, insurance companies, hospitals, emergency clinics, ambulance services, pharmacies and specialist doctors.