We’ve talked before on this blog about the potential applications of blockchain in medicine. I would like to share some more thoughts, as I think this is an area that is still poorly understood. For healthcare professionals, it is important to remember that blockchain is a technology that can be used to store many types of data in a decentralized way. We have already seen a number of projects that store patient data on blockchain.
But this is only the beginning – in the near future I believe we will see blockchain-based protocols that will allow patients to own their medical records and will give them the power to decide who to share them with and under what conditions. In this post I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about privacy in particular.
Background: What is Blockchain?
To understand how blockchain works, you need to have some basic knowledge of cryptography and a general understanding of how the internet works. Blockchain is a distributed database that allows parties to record transactions in a secure way. It is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.
What does this mean in simple terms? Imagine a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then imagine that this network is designed to regularly update this spreadsheet and you have a basic understanding of the blockchain. What makes the blockchain unique is that it is both distributed and immutable. This means that the data can’t be altered. It can only be added to. The blockchain contains the history of every transaction and keeps track of who has what.
Blockchain in Healthcare
Blockchain technology, as we’ve seen, allows for the decentralization of medical records. This means that the information is stored and controlled by the patient. It is also public, so that researchers and other medical professionals have access to the data. This has the potential to reduce the cost of healthcare by reducing the need for error-prone manual data entry and by preventing malicious modification of data. The blockchain can also make it easier to share medical records between different institutions and countries.
The blockchain can also be used to store medical data that is generated by medical devices. It can also be used to store data from clinical trials, genomic research and electronic health records.
One of the most interesting aspects of blockchain in the medical context is the transparency it adds to the whole medical system. Think about this not just in terms of patient records, but also patient outcomes. If you’re a medical practitioner, you probably want people to know what you’re good at. Blockchain allows you to publicize this in a transparent and secure manner.
This benefits the patient as well as the service provider. Praxismarketing, as we would say in Germany, is very important, and a good marketing strategy will get you a long way – we know this much already. What the effects of blockchain will be here is speculative, but it’s exciting to think about.
Blockchain and Anonymity
Of course, a database of public medical records sounds like a scary prospect. Who wants all their medical details exposed in a big online immutable ledger? The good news is that there are ways to anonymize data, so that you don’t have to worry about your friends, family and coworkers knowing about your medical history. It’s also possible to make it mandatory that certain pieces of information can be viewed only with your permission, or that certain data can’t be viewed by certain people.
In the near future, I believe we will see a number of blockchain-based applications that will allow patients to own their medical records. These will be applications that are based on permissioned blockchains. They will allow patients to decide who can see their medical records and under what conditions. I also believe we will see blockchain-based applications that will allow patients to store their medical data in a decentralized manner. These apps could be used by patients to store data about their health and to track data about their medical history.
What is the difference between a permissioned blockchain and a public blockchain? The main difference is that in a blockchain that is permissioned, only some parties have the ability to write to the ledger. This can be important when the parties want to ensure that they are the only ones who can write to the ledger. In a permissioned blockchain, the parties involved have to agree on the rules that govern the functioning of the blockchain.
The mathematics behind this security is complex, and to be honest I don’t understand it completely. The basic idea is that by verifying a transaction, you essentially prove that you did the work to check that it adheres to the rules of the blockchain. The main advantage of this is that you can have a high degree of confidence that a transaction is valid. You can also have high confidence that the records are updated in a secure way.
Challenges on the Road Ahead
I believe that blockchain is going to have a big impact on medicine in the near future. The technology has the potential to improve the way we store data, the way we share data and the way we access data. But as with any new technology, there are challenges that need to be overcome.
The first challenge is speed. Right now, there are not many blockchain-based platforms that can process transactions quickly enough to be used in a real-world environment. The Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains are slow and expensive, and other blockchains are still slower and more expensive.
The second challenge is scalability. The data stored in a blockchain grows linearly, so it’s important to make sure that the blockchain can scale as the amount of data stored on it increases. In addition, there is a big difference between the number of transactions that are made on test networks and the number of transactions made on the mainnet. If the network can’t handle the number of transactions that are being made on it, the system will be unusable.
The third challenge is privacy. The security measures that are used to keep data private in a blockchain can have the unintended consequence of slowing down the network. This is especially true if the network is being used to process a lot of small transactions.
The fourth challenge is regulation. This is a big issue, and a topic for another day.
The Bottom Line
There is no doubt in my mind that blockchain will have a major impact on medicine. Right now, it still has some challenges to overcome, but it’s definitely something to keep a close eye on.