Application of blockchain in healthcare has been a major hot topic for the past two years. Although blockchain-related hype in 2017 and 2018 has mainly revolved around potential applications in healthcare in general, many expect 2019 to produce solutions powered by blockchain in medical research. Exciting times await! The technology is likely continue to draw interest, as well as investments. It holds the potential to bring many efficiencies into the sector. As we explain in the following article, medical research and teleradiology, in particular, have a lot to gain by adopting blockchain.
Blockchain in Medical Research
When it comes to medical research, blockchain offers a sustainable solution to the critical and persisting issue of ensuring the security of health records. With its decentralized networks, blockchain minimizes the risk of third-party unauthorized data access. It also helps streamline the data sharing processes and minimize the cost of secure data handling. Security of healthcare data and accountability for the data exchange processes turn out to be key challenges for organizations working with sensitive medical information. Medical studies often involve multiple institutions and researchers, as well as health records of thousands of people. Occasions of health-related data breaches have not been isolated cases in the recent past. This leads to significant limitations to the innovation and growth of medical research.
The use of blockchain in medical research addresses such data security issues. Blockchain can safely provide clear audit trails of how data is being used and who is accessing it. Such audit capabilities are currently missing at many facilities. In addition, a clear advantage of the blockchain technology is that in the case of a cybersecurity attack, the blockchain structure protects sensitive data due to its ability to separately store data logs. Simply put, ‘blocks’ of data are distributed across multiple servers, so there is no single centralized database to ‘hack’.
However, a challenge for blockchain is the extent of trust hospitals and medical organizations are ready to lend it. As with any innovation, the expected benefits need to be weighed against possible risks. Hospitals keeping large amounts of patient data need to be convinced that decentralizing data storage and data exchange would not jeopardize, but increase data security when done properly.
According to Medical Diagnostic Web (MDW), less than 10% of studies currently are interpreted by teleradiologists. Given the projected shortage of specialists in the profession, the need to contract teleradiologists is expected to increase significantly in the near future. Yet, in order to facilitate timely and secure processing of data, medical establishments need to minimize security threats, as well as costs related to patient data transmission.
Similarly to keeping patient data for medical research, teleradiology requires diverse radiology information storage capabitlies. Diagnostic images, lab test results and radiology reports need to be stored in the cloud for the purpose of aiding diagnosis and treatment. The blockchain technology can help teleradiology with handling sensitive data by:
- granting access to multiple authorized users
- keeping track of all activity
- allow for savings by reducing radiology data storage and data transmission costs
In the broader field of telemedicine, blockchain can be harnessed to enhance the use of smart contracts. This can be a siginificant ease to the management of patient diagnosis and reports, handling of monetary transactions, as well as other financial data. Smart contracts are automatically enforced when pre-determined conditions are met. For example, the smart contract can require that all fields in a form need to be filled out before submission. Once the data is validated, the system will send the transaction to the blockchain for storage.
A few bumps on the road
The use of blockchain in teleradiology does not come without certain challenges. Such are the fear of new technology disrupting existing workflows, replacing familiar healthcare IT systems such as the PACS, and/or interfering with widely accepted interoperability standards like FHIR. Future users need to understand that blockchain does not disrupt the status quo for the sake of it, but rather provides a crucial, additional layer of security. Moreover, blockchain’s potential can be amplified by the convergence of technology with other emerging technologies such as AI.
Where are we now?
Startups and OEMs are already working toward disrupting various healthcare industry segments. Philips has announced ambitions to establish a “verifiable data exchange” which will grant medical researchers across the hospital network the ability to request needed data. The company can be confident that the received information has been properly tracked and audited through Blockchain.
Various startups like LunaDNA, Proof.Work, HealthWizz, Blockchain Health Co. are building platforms for users to share their health data (including DNA data) to help scientific discovery. Information is encrypted, and de-identified (stripped of personal data), and can be obtained by interested researchers to fill gaps in research data. California-based startup, DeepRadiology, is utilizing AI and blockchain to integrate smart contracts and utility tokens into its solutions. The company aims to eliminate exchange rate and payment processing fees, and increase the reliability and security of using its solutions.
Blockchain should not be regarded as a panacea. Medical providers need to perform a careful cost-and-benefit analysis before rushing to implement large-scale organizational changes. Blockchain’s potential to respond to a wide range of healthcare challenges is immense.
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