Blockchain technology attracted a significant amount of digital ink during 2016, and was introduced into mainstream consciousness as the technology underpinning cryptocurrency—e.g., Bitcoin. There are numerous potential applications for blockchain and it is already being hailed as revolutionary to the way we share data and do business in the digital age.
Whether it relates to banking, peer-to-peer social media, or even multi-billion dollar media corporations, in an age where big data—and, by extension, data privacy—is such a hot topic, the allure of a secure cryptographic data-storage solution applied to healthcare systems is too tempting to ignore.
What is a Blockchain?
A “blockchain” is a form of distributed database (or decentralized ledger) comprised of unchangeable, digitally recorded data packaged as “blocks.” Each of these blocks of data is stored in a linear chain and each of these chains is cryptographically hashed (assigned a unique string). Every modification to the data generates a new block, preserving the old, and each new block of data is linked back to the previous block in the chain, which ensures not only that the overall “blockchain” is tamper-proof, but also that the data history of each record is entirely traceable.
Strengthening the Links
As global organizations and entrepreneurs alike continue to experiment with blockchain technology, the benefits and challenges of wider adoption have become more apparent, not the least of which is that the technology underpinning blockchains is decentralized—with identical versions of each block stored across every device in the network. The more digital devices carrying the chain, the more resilient the overall chain becomes to malicious behavior. Sure, as a new technology, it is not yet perfect, but as the healthcare industry starts truly leveraging Big Data, there are some exciting opportunities where blockchain technology could be leveraged.
Here are three ways that blockchain technology could revolutionize the healthcare system we know today.
1) Securing the weak links.
Big Data discussions invariably lead to questions of data security. A universal infrastructure built upon an improved version of today’s blockchain technology, and shared across all stakeholders within the healthcare system, could be the ultimate solution to ensure that data is shared only with those granted access.
Traditional centralized systems inherently provide a high-cost, single point of potential failure that can be vulnerable to attack. By dispersing the chain throughout several thousand (potentially tens of thousands) of machines, each point holds a complete record for the block itself. This shared version becomes the “consensus,” which means if one block is tampered with, it is easy to spot by simply comparing it to the rest. Factor in the unique strings and any tampering is immediately traceable back to the source.
2) Democratizing healthcare data.
Data consistency and data access are common challenges facing healthcare systems today; data is siloed and no single company or healthcare system has a complete view of the data held on an individual, a provider, or an institution.
Imagine a world where the patient updates her record in real-time to report side effects or shares her complete medical history when visiting a new hospital or physician for the first time. Physicians and payers could similarly maintain their own personal strings, updating communication preferences, specialties, or prescribing histories in real-time and sharing this information with relevant groups. Due to the secure nature of blockchain technology, and the ability of individuals to access and modify their own unique strings, for the first time all stakeholders could be assigned a single-personal record and have a say about with whom those records are shared.
3) Creating a Big Data healthcare network.
Blockchain technology could be the solution for a universally accessible Big Data network in healthcare. Data has quickly become industry’s biggest commodity and, while bold, it is not unrealistic to see this as the natural choice for removing silos once and for all and leveling the Big Data playing field.
By providing one, single network with equal access to data, the conversation around Big Data and data intelligence shifts immediately from volume—the number of records, to value—what you can do with them. Such a move would add an extra layer of stability and relative ease to data storage as well. Think of the Internet—there is no single point of storage. Websites and files are stored and cached across hundreds, if not thousands, of sites around the world. With the levels of security that a large-scale blockchain project can provide, the same approach to storage could be taken with healthcare data.
We are still very much in the test-and-learn phase of blockchain’s lifecycle, pushing its potential to the limits and iterating on its application to business. As data and healthcare systems continue to break down silos and embrace integration, solutions powered by blockchain technology might quickly take their rightful places as the next natural step in that process.
William King is the founder and Executive Chairman of Zephyr Health, the Insights-as-a-Service leader harnessing the power of global health data to help Life Sciences companies engage the right physicians, accounts and institutions. He is passionate about creating innovative solutions to advance efficiency, strategy and tactical problem solving for healthcare companies.
Since its inception, Zephyr Health has grown to serve leading pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device and diagnostic companies globally, and has received numerous industry accolades, including being named one of Gartner’s “Cool Vendors in Life Science,” PM360’s “Most Innovative Start-ups,” and Insights Success’ “20 Most Valuable Enterprise Big Data Companies.”
William himself was recognized as one of PharmaVOICE’s “100 Most Inspiring People” representing innovation and dedication to the healthcare industry. Prior to founding Zephyr Health, William held a range of global leadership positions in sales, marketing, training and strategy at multinational Johnson & Johnson. He was also a member of the International Development Program for global leadership and people development.
William is a regular participant at the industry’s most prestigious conferences including Big Data in BioMedicine, BIO International Convention and Digital Healthcare Innovation Summit.
William holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Denver. He currently resides in the Bay Area with his wife and three children.
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