The field of medicine has always found ways to embrace the latest technologies in order to advance and improve patient care. Convex lenses still used in surgery today were invented in the 13th century, after centuries of trying to harness the magnification power of crystals.
When Ben Franklin discovered how we could harness electricity in 1752, everything from the way a surgical area was lit to the instruments medical professionals had available to them changed.
The Age of Blockchain
Blockchain technology is the latest technology that the medical field is looking to harness to advance patient treatment and care.
For those unclear about what blockchain is, you may simply know it as the mysterious force behind Bitcoin, the first and most famous cryptocurrency to hit the Internet-waves. Coindesk explains it well: “With a blockchain, many people can write entries into a record of information, and a community of users can control how the record of information is amended and updated. Like…Wikipedia [where] entries are not the product of a single publisher. No one person controls the information.”
Blockchain, also known as “distributed ledger technology…is being seriously hyped by financial tech experts—drawing comparisons to the printing press, combustion engine, and even the internet in terms of its impact on society” according to Leafly.
Blockchain medicine is here
Many have recognized the potential for the new technology to revolutionize commerce even beyond its basic use as the basis for digital currency; but, it is also becoming the new “it” technology when it comes to the medical field. Specifically, blockchain is being looked at for simplifying medical data collection and retention. “A distributed, trusted ledger could, for example, massively simplify the prescription of medicine to patients.”
In Australia, as medical cannabis becomes a legitimized industry, that industry is looking to utilize blockchain technology for regulation and standardization. “clinical trials are not only a prerequisite for registration of a drug with Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, they are also critical for building confidence in a product or company and thus attracting investment.” Having a distributed ledger of this clinical trial data would easily and securely satiate those needs, in addition to providing added security to the process of prescribing a new commercial drug for the first time. Legally, this could also help protect the medical marijuana industry from going the way of the opioid industry, as exemplified by the current opioid crisis, by minimizing black markets from misusing and mis-distributing medical marijuana prescriptions for potentially dangerous recreational use.
Current attempts at combining blockchain and marijuana
Already in the United States, companies like Potcoin are utilizing blockchain technology for transactions in states where cannabis has been legalized either medically or recreationally; this adds a further line of defense against people attempting to “game the system” and illegally use the growing, legalized industry.
The blockchain potential in the medical industry goes well beyond formerly illegal prescription drugs and emerging industries, however. According to Harvard Business Review: “A vexing problem facing health care systems throughout the world is how to share more medical data with more stakeholders for more purposes, all while ensuring data integrity and protecting patient privacy.” One major issue constantly facing the medical industry is how to share medical information for research purposes without compromising the security and privacy of the patients that information may be about. This goes beyond clinical trials and ventures into the realm of real-life situations that, if studied, could dramatically change medical practice and understanding. Controlled environment research simply cannot ever go as far when it comes to understanding real people, real lives and the reality of the medical and health issues that occur in them.
The potential to share real and complex medical records without “outing” patients has the potential to revolutionize the medical field.
“Blockchain offers…the potential to enable secure lifetime medical record sharing across providers.”
Benefits of the blockchain
Blockchain was invented to protect the anonymity of those using Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, just as cash does but in the digital realm. Utilizing that technology and that type of system would allow healthcare providers to more easily share a single patient’s medical records for the purposes of finite treatment, or to share bulk records for the purposes of enhancing research and understanding in a secure way.
Setting up a blockchain system for medical providers would also advance the ability of disparate providers and professionals to communicate with each other. As it stands, sharing medical records and other information between providers requires the communication and cooperation between sometimes incompatible technologies or systems, or even standards of operation. Blockchain would streamline these processes both in time required to share information and the number of steps necessary to get the sharing done. Blockchain has a built in verification and security system that would take away the necessity for humans to manually go through various steps for sharing data; it would also, therefore, minimize the occurrence of human error.
Blockchain comes with its own verification system which can be coded to ensure precise security measures and multi-point authentication, thereby minimizing the potential of hacking or someone otherwise taking advantage of the system and the information it holds.
A real world example for how blockchain would protect patients and maximize medical care and treatment efficiency comes from the Harvard Business Review article linked above: “If you [the patient] end up being transferred to another hospital, the new hospital may not be able to access data about your care…there is no guarantee of data integrity from the point of data generation to the point of data use—it is assumed that the sending system generated an accurate payload and the receiving system ingested the payload accurately—with no standardized audit trail.”
There is not a guarantee of this, meaning not only that the data could be compromised, lost or stolen by hackers, but also that it could be unreadable, misinterpreted or inaccurate because of the effort to share it between incompatible technological systems. Setting up a standardized system for this process like blockchain would minimize the potential hazards of sharing medical data, either for individual patients in similar situations to above, or for the use in research, study and medical advancement.