Hype around crypto currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum reached a fever pitch toward the end of 2017. The appeal is obvious: speculators have been doubling their money in a matter of days – sometimes hours – by investing in assets built with a new technology called Blockchains. But behind each of the most promising assets in the crypto space are teams of technologists who are less focused on the market swings than they are on using blockchains to disrupt almost every industry, healthcare included.
Crypto currencies entered the lexicon in 2009, when the first Bitcoin code was first published, kicking off the blockchain era. At the time it was just an intriguing thought experiment; a response to the financial collapse and the shortcomings of central banking. Today, the entire blockchain market is worth over $500 billion, but crypto “currency” is now a total misnomer. Blockchain technologies have evolved to support hundreds of digital services, in addition to the transfer and store of value ostensibly offered by Bitcoin. Some of those services – such as identity management, record keeping, and hardware automation – are likely to play important roles in modernizing healthcare.
In fact, some of the most pernicious problems in health IT represent multi-billion dollar opportunities for blockchain solutions. Issues like EHR interoperability, data security, and supply chain management fall squarely in the problem set targeted by blockchain healthcare ventures, and Fortune 100 companies are teaming up with entrepreneurs and researchers to bring those solutions to market.
At this early stage, the technologists need clinicians more than ever. Folks on the front lines of healthcare have always been invaluable to health tech startups but there are more questions than answers about how blockchains fit into the business process. It’s clear that healthcare organizations stand to realize operational efficiencies by outsourcing computation to the blockchain, but the problem-solving potential of this new tech will require ongoing collaboration between providers and experts in this emerging field of computer science.
The clear common denominator for these opportunities is data sharing – activities in healthcare that involve multiple parties and can be made more reliable, and more accessible on the block chain. Conrad Barksi, physician and founder of Forward Blockchain (no relation to the author) explains, “a large amount of data managed by medical organizations is not patient data, and it does not fall under HIPPA guidelines.”
Forward Blockchain uses a system they call Hier to store certification information, and inspection reports, however other blockchain ventures are targeting HIPPA data. Patientory is one of the best known among cryptocurrency enthusiasts, having raised $7.5 million in their initial coin offering (crowdfunding, on the blockchain). The group aims to liberate patient data from the walled gardens of proprietary EMR’s by putting it on the blockchain.
The question of whether CIO’s can stomach the thought of incorporating such public infrastructure into their IT operations remains to be answered, but despite their likely apprehension, IBM claims that 16% of healthcare providers expect to implement a commercial blockchain solution within the next year. Similarly, mid-size Bay Area venture PokitDok has partnered with Intel to build solutions on their Sawtooth framework, part of the Hyperledger consortium managed by open-source legends at the Linux Foundation.
To be sure, the space is still more hype than utility. But there is no question that the blockchain solutions will garner operational efficiencies, perhaps producing even more value to healthcare organizations than they are for speculators today. For that to be the case, clinicians and health IT professionals will need to find ways to harness the seemingly boundless enthusiasm of blockchain techies.