Tech

Steve Kaaru

Growth factors for blockchain in healthcare

Blockchain is being utilized in several industries now, but one that it has really impacted and looks set to keep doing so is the healthcare industry. The timing has especially been ideal for the technology, coming at a time when healthcare has become technology-driven, with patients demanding better analysis and more access to their medical records. Regulatory demands have also become more stringent, yet another area that blockchain technology could greatly impact the healthcare industry.

To really understand why blockchain use in the healthcare industry is revolutionary, we must first understand some of the challenges that plague the industry. While digital transformation in the industry has been in high gear, there is still a long way to go before digital healthcare can become a reality. For starters, the patients still lack access to their medical records as most of the digital platforms available don’t allow for sharing of information.

Authenticity of data is yet another field that is crucial in healthcare, but one which the current technology has been unable to offer. And it’s not just with the medical records that the healthcare industry has systemic issues.

The pharmaceuticals industry has also been facing some great problems for several years now, one of which is counterfeiting. Counterfeit drugs have continued to be an epidemic, leading to loss of lives and costing the manufacturers billions of dollars every year. Research has found that one in eight essential medicines in middle and low income countries is counterfeit, underlining just how big an issue it is.

Blockchain’s integration into the healthcare industry is hinged on three important qualities of the technology: decentralization, immutability and security. These three qualities support several use cases in the healthcare industry, making it one of the industries that blockchain is set to impact the most.

The first application of blockchain technology in the industry is in the exchange of information. While we live in the digital era where communication is instant, the healthcare industry still suffers from opaque systems that make the sharing of information a herculean task. Industry professionals engage in health information exchange (HIE), a practice that’s meant to ensure seamless information sharing between them about their patients. However, HIE doesn’t always work, with some professionals deliberately sabotaging the process so as to keep their patients to themselves.

Blockchain technology is decentralized and allows every person in the network to access any data that’s recorded on the ledger. Integrating blockchain into healthcare systems eliminates information blocking—which is considered a crime by most countries—and ensures that a patient has access to their medical records and can present them to any professional of their choice.

There have been blockchain solutions that have been developed to tackle this challenge already, some from blockchain startups and others from established players. MTBC, a publicly traded IT company focusing on the healthcare industry is one such company which has integrated blockchain into its systems. In 2018, the company announced the launch of a blockchain-powered electronic health records system.

Integrating blockchain into the industry also protects the authenticity of the data. With the data stored on a blockchain network being immutable, it protects it against any manipulation—accidental or deliberate. In this industry, having the correct data could mean the difference between life and death for a patient, making it all the more important. South Korea’s MediBloc is one startup that has developed blockchain solutions for this use case and currently works with over 80 medical institutions, including the Massachusetts General Hospital.

It’s not just with the exchange and storage of data that blockchain is revolutionizing. It’s also helping the healthcare industry reduce various costs by eliminating some of the hurdles that existed previously as well as some of the unnecessary third parties. Health is a paramount need for people and they thus go out of their way to ensure they get the best medical care. However, what most of us don’t know is that a lot of the money we pay ends up in the hands of third-parties who make no contribution to our medical experience.

Smart contracts automate many processes in the healthcare industry, one of which is the payments. They can enable the patients, the healthcare professionals and the drug providers to enter into an automatically-executing contract that where the patient pays for the services rendered.

And it’s not just with the doctors and pharmaceuticals that smart contracts can help. They can be also utilized in the insurance industry which is closely related to healthcare. By executing smart contracts in medical insurance policies, the patients are assured that the payments will be paid promptly without having to go through the usual bureaucratic processes that are not only costly, but also time consuming. The insurers also get to lower their overheads, allowing them to offer better policies to their clients.

Perhaps the greatest way that blockchain technology has impacted the healthcare industry is in pharmaceuticals. The pharma industry is one of the largest in the world, with global giants making billions of dollars every year. However, its size has also been one of its greatest undoings as it opens itself to the entrance of fraudsters.

Several reports have highlighted just how prevalent counterfeiting is in the pharmaceuticals industry, but none has been able to propose a viable solution. Then came blockchain technology.

The applications are diverse, one of which is checking the authenticity of returned drugs. Every year, drug manufacturers take back over $10 billion worth of drugs from excess supply. These drugs are resold, but their authenticity must legally be verified first. Blockchain can enable the manufacturers to do this, ensuring that the drugs are of the highest quality and don’t end up causing harm to the patients.

Another use case is in the elimination of counterfeits in the supply chain. Blockchain has been applied in supply chain management for quite some time now, especially by retailers. However, while the retailers do it to ensure profitability, it could save lives when applied to the pharma industry. Several companies have already initiated pilots that seek to use blockchain for this purpose including Novartis and Pfizer. The Foods and Drugs Administration (FDA) in the U.S. also launched a pilot for this use case, partnering with IBM and Walmart.

Blockchain technology is still in nascent stages, but it’s already transforming several industries. Healthcare is establishing itself as one of the key sectors that blockchain is impacting and as more players join the space, blockchain use will become unanimous in the healthcare industry.

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