The goal is a health care system where patients have accurate and updated records that are secure against tampering or snooping
The sprawling U.S. health care industry has trouble managing patient information: Every doctor, medical office, hospital, pharmacy, therapist and insurance company needs different pieces of data to properly care for patients. These records are scattered all over on each business’s computers—and some no doubt in filing cabinets too. They’re not all kept up to date with current information, as a person’s prescriptions change or new X-rays are taken, and they’re not easily shared from one provider to another.
For instance, in Boston alone, medical offices use more than two dozen different systems for keeping electronic health records. None of them can directly communicate with any of the others, and all of them present opportunities for hackers to steal, delete or modify records either individually or en masse. In an emergency, doctors may not be able to get crucial medical information because it’s stored somewhere else. That can result in direct harm to patients.
There might be a way out, toward a health care system where patients have accurate and updated records that are secure against tampering or snooping, and with data that can be shared quickly and easily with any provider who needs it. In my work on health care innovation at the Center for Health Law Studies, at Saint Louis University School of Law, I have been following the rise of a technology that may help us address the weaknesses in today’s health care record-keeping: blockchain.
A secure system to store private information
Blockchain systems, best known in connection with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, are networks of databases stored in different places that use securely encrypted messages to connect with each other over the internet. Information can’t be deleted, but it can be updated—though only by authorized users, whose identities are recorded along with their actions.
That would keep years of patient data secure and make any human errors in data entry easy to track down and correct. Patients themselves could review and update information, and even add new information they collect or observe about their own conditions. Both hacking and fraud would be extremely difficult.
There are many blockchain systems, each with its own security methods and practices, but developers are working to help them connect with each other, working out how to make the process of collecting records much cheaper and faster than today.
Helping patients and practitioners
Blockchain can also help other areas of the health care industry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are developing blockchain-based systems to share data on threatening pathogens, analyze outbreaks, and manage the response to public health crises. Some commentators have even suggested that a blockchain system might help track opioid use and abuse.
Clinical trials, too, may benefit from blockchain. Today, patchy data and inefficient communication among all players involved in clinical trials pose serious problems. The drug discovery and development processes could see similar benefits.
Pharmaceutical companies currently monitor drug shipments and delivery through an inefficient web of scattered databases. In 2017, Pfizer and other drugmakers announced their support for MediLedger, seeking to transfer those tasks to a blockchain—which Walmart is already doing to track its food shipments.