How Blockchains Can Provide New Benefits for Healthcare

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How valuable would it be to have the full history of your health? What if every one of your vital signs that have been recorded, all the medicines taken, information associated with every doctor’s visit, illness, operations and more could be efficiently and accurately captured?

The quality and coordination of health care would be expected to rise, and the costs and risks likely to fall. Such a system is called “long data,” which is short for “longitudinal data” — and its application to healthcare. Long data is simply the lifetime history of data related to a person, place or thing.

And that is precisely why blockchains in the healthcare industry could do exceedingly well.

Data captured on blockchains can be shared in real time across a group of individuals and institutions. Every event or transaction is time-stamped and becomes part of a long chain, or permanent record, which can’t be tampered with after the fact.

On permissionless blockchains, all parties can view all records. On permissioned blockchains, privacy can be maintained by agreement about which parties can view which transactions and where, by masking the identity of the party.

In this way, blockchains shift the lens from disparate bits of information held by a single owner, to the lifetime history of an asset. This holds true whether that asset is a patient’s health record or a bottle of pills as it moves through the supply chain.

From the perspective of blockchain adoption, healthcare organizations are moving fast and even seem to have a lead on the financial industry.

A new IBM Institute for Business Value blockchain study, Healthcare Rallies for Blockchain, surveyed 200 healthcare executives in 16 countries. We found that 16 percent aren’t just experimenting; they expect to have a commercial blockchain solution at scale in 2017.

They are leading the charge with real-world blockchain applications that they expect to take down the frictions that hold them back. They’re keenly focused on accessing new and trusted information which they can keep secure, as well as entering new markets.

Leaders expect the greatest blockchain benefits concerni9ng time, cost, and risk in three areas: clinical trial records, regulatory compliance, and medical and health records. They also anticipate widespread business model innovation or more than other industries we have surveyed to date — in six out of nine business areas.

Despite their expectations of transformative innovation, healthcare institutions, including the leaders who are adopting blockchain models, aren’t anticipating significant disruption. They may believe that regulatory constraints will keep new competitors and models in check.

Regardless, healthcare institutions are going all-in: investing heavily in blockchain pilots, with nine in 10 respondents planning to invest by 2018 across several business areas.

Blockchains are widely recognized in many industries as an exceptional platform for regulatory compliance. They establish a trusted audit trail verifiable in real time. This means blockchains don’t just track compliance; they streamline enforcement; and deter bad actors from the outset.

Instead of relying on periodic spot inspections, blockchain-enabled smart contracts can ensure that the appropriate parties are notified of non-compliant events as they happen. In short, blockchains establish a platform to automatically enforce privacy regulations; rules embedded via smart contracts dictate what they can see and when.

Moreover, as data and transactions are shifted or linked to blockchains, organizations can track who has shared data and with whom, without revealing the data itself.

By now, most healthcare organizations, like institutions in other industries, recognize that blockchains could greatly reduce the time, costs and risks associated with how they operate.

We asked healthcare executives about nine areas core to their business and analyzed their answers. Our analysis reveals near unanimity; blockchain benefits are compelling and can be gained in every aspect of healthcare. Potential benefits will only increase as blockchains in healthcare get closer to commercialization.

Heather Fraser is a pharmacist and the Global Lead for Healthcare and Life Sciences with the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV).

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