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Will blockchain be the next big thing in the healthcare sector?

06 Nov 2018

It’s the high-tech development du jour which the crypto-currency craze has propelled to prominence and it’s opened up a wealth of possibilities for governments and business globally.

But will blockchain – the technology which allows digital information to be distributed but not copied – be the next big thing in the privacy-driven healthcare sector?

The health services market is worth $137 billion a year in Australia and is growing at a healthy clip – 4.6 per cent a year, according to 2018 market research by Ibisworld.

Analysts at management consultancy McKinsey appear to believe it’s a sector ripe for the tapping. 

In a recent report, they note blockchain-based health records can not only facilitate increased administrative efficiency, but they may also give researchers access to historical, non-patient identifiable data sets crucial for advancements in medical research.

Looking ahead, the firm expects the value of the technology to shift from driving cost reduction to enabling entirely new business models and revenue streams.

High tech research house IDC has also flagged blockchain technology as a game changer. It takes the position that blockchain interoperability will pave the way for the formation of a next-generation vehicle for data exchange that will contribute to digital transformation in healthcare organisations, courtesy of its network effect.

IDC suggests the potential applications are legion – the creation of a common database, regardless of the formats electronic medical records are stored in, the streamlining of supply chains, the sharing of research to facilitate the advance of new therapies and treatments and to demonstrate ‘proof of work’ for healthcare related tasks.

We share the optimism – provided it’s tempered with a healthy dose of realism. Despite the hype, Blockchain isn’t, and won’t be, the be-all and end-all. Plug it in and expect it to fix every information sharing challenge and disappointment is likely to follow. At best, blockchain will be an augmentation of current solutions, not a wholesale replacement for everything in the healthcare sector’s collective technology stack.

Supply chain 

Supply chains within the healthcare sector have been early adopters of blockchain technology. Manufacturers and distributors within the pharmaceuticals industry were quick to recognise the efficiency gains sharing non-private data on a blockchain distributed ledger can deliver.

There are numerous other potentially compelling use cases in various stages of development and maturity. 

In the health insurance sector, for instance, blockchain technology could be used to assist with the resolution of claims which involve a mutable chain of events. Other possibilities include streamlining the patient matching process, improving healthcare team coordination for complex patients, tracking medication histories and speeding the payer-provider reconciliation process.

Coming up with new and innovative ways to use blockchain will precede companies’ and organisations’ desire to experiment with the technology and a clear financial incentive will likely be their chief driver. 

Practice privacy

One application for the technology that’s unlikely to be embraced in the foreseeable future is the storage of patient data by healthcare practices. 

The recent debate in Australia around the federal government’s introduction of an electronic health record, the My Health Record, revealed the depth of public and professional concern about the possibility of confidential patient data being compromised or exposed. After a barrage of negative publicity, the government was forced to amend opt-out rules and provide stronger assurances patient data would be subject to stringent privacy and security measures.

In this climate, it seems reasonable to assume there will be no stampede to expose sensitive patient records to an untested storage and security paradigm. Until the ICT industry advances a solution which can satisfy practices’ privacy requirements and offer an advantage over their existing systems, it’s unlikely there will be. 

Practices aren’t in the business of trying to populate databases for the sake of it. Their raison d’etre is helping patients. Until they’re offered a solution that enables them to contribute easily – and gives them a compelling reason or incentive to do so – the status quo is likely to prevail.

Conclusion

While blockchain has been heralded as a disruptive technology which will change our lives, organisations within the healthcare sphere are likely to take an ‘adopt with caution’ approach to its use. That’s as it should be, in an industry where preserving trust is paramount and patient privacy and data security rightfully trump interoperability and efficiency.

Article by Peter O’Connor, Vice President of Sales Asia Pacific and Japan at Snowflake Computing.

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