Blockchain in healthcare: the exciting future of global health technology
The healthcare industry needs to overcome many obstacles if it is to transform into a universal healthcare system by 2030 under the UN’s SGD goals. In many cases, progress is hindered by the lack of infrastructure required for such a shift. This is particularly complicated because the healthcare industry involves complex supply chains and numerous stakeholders.
This creates several issues:
1. The lack of integration across healthcare providers, which creates data siloes and makes it difficult to assess the supply chain as a whole
2. Data security, ownership, and access
3. Counterfeit medications and poor healthcare practices
4. Wastage of services
Security breaches are a particular concern in today’s digital world. In 2021, the Ponemon Institute estimated that the average cost of a data breach in the US was $4.24 million, the highest on their records.
Patients also typically do not have access to their own personal data, whereby a third-party (i.e. a doctor or a hospital) often has full control over the data they collect. This makes transitions between stakeholders – from patients to clinics to insurance providers – a cumbersome and often duplicate task.
How can technology help the healthcare industry?
Radically new technologies and policies are key to achieving universal healthcare. Blockchain is one such technology that shows promising applications for addressing the challenges.
Experts say that “blockchain is on the brink of transforming the healthcare system. ”It is estimated that blockchain technology could result in savings of up to $100–150 billion per year by 2025 by improving data collection, management, transparency, and security.
Blockchain also has the potential to address two of the most pressing obstacles: data protection and accuracy. In an age of data breaches, the security of personal information is key, and data accuracy is crucial when the outcome is life or death.
Most importantly, blockchain can address the issue of remote, isolated, and underserved populations, such as in sub-Saharan Africa. While healthcare and financial access are low, almost 50% of the region’s population subscribes to a mobile service, representing almost half a billion users. This makes Africa ripe for healthcare technology and eHealth investments, especially for mobile applications.
Today, more than 20 countries in the African region are experimenting with eHealth strategies and new technologies. Trends include mHealth, telehealth, and eLearning to excel in the region’s healthcare goals.
The KimboCare founders similarly believe that blockchain can significantly revolutionize the healthcare industry. Through their own blockchain data platform and “health credits”, they are able to facilitate quicker access to health services and provide a secure database for personal information and payments. The end-to-end data also enables them to create a value-based healthcare service to address the issue of healthcare quality in their pilot countries in Africa. You can read more about their project here.
This article discusses in detail some of the current healthcare challenges and examples of how blockchain can address them.
Blockchain is key for reforming healthcare
Blockchain ensures maximum transparency by using a decentralized, distributed digital ledger system to store and share information. In healthcare, blockchain has the potential to overturn hierarchal healthcare systems into patient-led management and care.
Blockchain is also more secure than other data systems because there is no centralized system for a hacker to target. Instead, blockchain allows numerous copies on different nodes. This makes it relatively resistant to tampering.
Specifically, blockchain has the potential to reform the healthcare industry because of the ability to:
- share and store digital medical records and clinical trial data
- improve mobile healthcare systems
- enable remote monitoring of devices
- integrate healthcare fees with insurance claims
- reduce data breach costs
- monitor and optimize supply chains
- reduce counterfeit products
- improve IT, operation, and personnel costs
- facilitate healthcare billing processes
- investigate and abide by local regulations
Compelling use cases for blockchain in healthcare
1. Electronic Health Records (EHR) and data collection
In some developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of digital medical records impacts healthcare access and data collection. Some clinics still rely on written records and retrieval and security of this data being compromised and delay treatment.
However, even in developed countries, medical data collection has not reached its full potential. Blockchain’s inoperability enables integration across numerous stakeholders, which could reduce time as patients move between various healthcare providers.
Blockchain can aggregate various EHRs into a single health record for a patient’s lifetime, regardless of location or provider. Artificial intelligence (AI) can also mine this data to offer each patient personalized healthcare recommendations.
These databases also help policymakers and leaders get a better picture of their population’s health issues to better allocate resources. Blockchain software can be used to automate many processes, such as check-up reminders and preventative care, which boosts the utilization of healthcare services and improves overall population health. One example is Prescrypt led by Deloitte in the Netherlands. Their blockchain software analyses patients’ prescriptions to track their health data and offer healthcare services.
In low-income economies, the monetization of data could also provide an answer to covering healthcare costs. Longenes is one company pioneering this endeavor for Africa’s huge population. Its blockchain platform connects users and enterprises for the purpose of gathering valuable data.
In addition, the aggregation of this data can facilitate clinical trials. Trials require numerous stakeholders, including research participants, medical promoters and manufacturers, analysts, healthcare practitioners, and government regulatory agencies. Blockchain can facilitate patient consent, check regulatory approval, collect, and analyze data, and communicate this data to all stakeholders.
2. Patient management of their own healthcare
Imagine that users could access and manage their healthcare data in the same way as banking and financial services on their smartphones.
With blockchain, a patient could securely hold their lifetime health data on an app and grant access to any healthcare provider with a single tap. For example, Medipass allows users to aggregate medical data from various hospitals onto a mobile app.
The decentralized system enables both patients and healthcare providers to access shared data. Using smart and multi-signature contracts means patients’ documents are resistant to altering while also allowing a patient to control who can access their records.
This means patients can upload new data at any time and give access to a healthcare provider, no matter their location. This has obvious applications for telehealth and remote consultations, especially in areas that are far from healthcare facilities. Patients could also anonymously grant data to researchers to help the development of groundbreaking medical innovations.
Most importantly, it would reduce duplication of paperwork and enable various doctors to consult on the same patient; in particular, patients with illnesses that require a multidisciplinary team or who are transferred to various clinical trials, such as cancer patients.
In addition, it has the potential to reduce insurance fraud, which costs the industry around $80 billion per year. Using smart contracts, patients can give insurers direct access to their healthcare data to assess the validity of a claim. This can be returned to users in the form of lower administrative costs.
On top of this are rising concerns over data breaches and the ethic that patients should have access to their own data. This is becoming especially pressing considering the need to protect data from wearable tracking devices and medical equipment.
3. Mobile and remote healthcare
A key issue to achieving universal healthcare is accessing remote, isolated, and under-resourced communities.
Mobile technology is particularly ripe for addressing these issues due to the high mobile penetration in developing countries. For example, sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where almost 10% of GDP in transactions are made using mobile wallets, compared to 2% in other areas in the world.
Pilot programs utilizing mobile technology in Africa, for example, have helped millions of people get timely and important health advice.
Rwanda’s Rapid SMS service is an example that uses blockchain technology for pregnant women. Health workers can register, monitor, and request services for pregnant women via text messages to a central server. Authorities can additionally use this data to understand issues affecting the population and better allocate resources.
4. Real-time monitoring
Certain illnesses, such as long-term diseases or those that require regular monitoring, can benefit from remote healthcare. Patients can be monitored at home using tracking devices and important notifications can be sent to patients and providers alike.
Blockchain can provide the infrastructure to store and analyze this high amount of data. Patients can then give healthcare providers instant access to this data whenever necessary. For example, diabetes patients could send their data to a doctor and receive instant advice in the event of an emergency.
5. Better management of supply chains
One issue of today’s healthcare systems is the lack of data. Often data is siloed across the various stakeholders in the healthcare supply chain. This makes it difficult for policymakers and leaders to understand gaps in the supply chain and determine how and where to improve.
MediLedger Project is one example that uses blockchain to merge drug and logistic providers to gather data on where drug batches are sent, and then optimize the logistical supply chain.
6. Value-based-care systems
When data can be aggregated from across an entire supply chain, gaps and areas of opportunities become evident. This ability of blockchain to break data siloes makes it ripe for creating value-based-care systems.
This is especially true when end-to-end data involves patient feedback as part of the metric system. For example, KimboCare’s healthcare platform collects data from all stakeholders during a patient’s treatment, including the patient’s review of services received. This data keeps healthcare providers accountable for their care, while also providing an incentive to improve healthcare quality.
7. Fake drugs
Counterfeit drugs are a global issue and are responsible for up to a million deaths annually. They affect every region of the world and contribute to drug-resistant illnesses.
The issue is compounded in countries where corruption is high and supply chains are easily compromised. Poverty drives people to buy drugs from unofficial sources despite the risks. The WHO estimates around 10% of drugs in low and middle-income countries is falsified or below standard.
Anti-malaria drugs and antibiotics are most commonly falsified, although everything from pain to cancer medication can be tampered with. These medications either fail to treat patients due to the lack of active ingredients, or can result in death due to toxic ingredients, improper storage, or the wrong dosage.
Complex and global healthcare supply chains make it difficult to track the origin of each drug. Pharmaceuticals often pass through numerous entities in the supply chain, leading to the issue of data siloes. Manufacturers, logistic services, and warehouses typically keep their own separate databases, rather than share information. This makes it easier for falsified and substandard drugs to enter the supply chain.
Blockchain technology provides numerous applications for combatting counterfeit drugs:
- As a distributed ledger, once a medicine is entered it cannot be changed or edited. This makes it harder to enter counterfeit drugs into the supply chain.
- Various metrics from across the supply chain can be monitored, such as shipping and temperature data, to ensure no drug has been compromised.
- The entire supply chain can be tracked and shared among stakeholders, from manufacturing to the sale of each drug. This end-to-end data improves transparency and the validity of a drug’s origin. In the event of recalls, it is also easier and quicker to track down and remove the affected drugs.
- The transparency additionally works as an incentive for stakeholders to improve their services seeing all data is traced and can be analyzed.
In African countries, Sproxil and mPedigree Network are using mobile technology to help patients check the validity of their medication. Patients scratch a panel to reveal a code, and then send this number via an app to confirm the drug’s validity. This also gives companies data to understand their client base, such as adverse reactions. Chekkit is another example, which also rewards feedback in the form of loyalty points or instant airtime.
Another application includes reducing fake vaccination certificates, such as the yellow fever certificate or, more recently, fake covid-19 vaccination certificates. A decentralized, public ledger makes it easier to identify the authenticity of a certificate.
The lack of education, both for professionals and the general public, impacts the quality of healthcare and health prevention, especially in emerging economies with lower education rates.
For example, the WHO reported that non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases are becoming the main cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa. The death rate almost doubled in the last two decades largely due to a lack of prevention measures, diagnosis, and care.
Blockchain technology can be used for various education initiatives. It can be used to automate check-up notifications, send health education messages via mobile apps, or store educational information that can be reached by various stakeholders.
Blockchain can drive substantial savings
Beyond enabling innovative healthcare solutions that are transforming the industry, blockchain helps drive efficiencies at scale. According to research, blockchain could save the healthcare industry up to $100 billion per year by 2025.
There are many ways that blockchain can enable savings:
- It is estimated that switching from paper to electronic records can cut costs by 3% for outpatient treatment.
- IBM reports that data sharing could save hospitals $93 billion over five years.
- Using a peer-to-peer system saves costs by cutting out third-party intermediaries and services.
- Blockchain is the backbone for creating superior data analytic applications and implementing AI technology. By automating data collection and analysis, companies can analyze their supply chains to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.
- Smart contracts can automate many processes that are required in the healthcare industry, which saves times and requires less human resources.
- Operational and transactional costs are typically cheaper than traditional methods.
These considerable savings would allow healthcare providers to cut costs for consumers. Lower healthcare costs would be a significant step towards achieving universal healthcare.
Among the myriad technologies today, blockchain shows the most potential for achieving universal healthcare. This is largely due to the ability of blockchain to facilitate secure exchanges of data and payments, while managing the delicate balance between privacy and access for all stakeholders, including patients. Improving the collection of data also shows promising advances for monetizing healthcare data, creating value-based care models, and better-allocating healthcare resources. In addition, blockchain has the potential to save billions of dollars for the healthcare industry, which allows healthcare providers to pass on these savings to patients and boost universal healthcare access.