How blockchain could bypass the healthcare industry and help you gain control of your body and your data
The healthcare industry has long been defined by its push towards vertical innovation. Billions of dollars are not spent in vain every year in medical and pharmaceutical research. Behind the obvious benefit for the population lies also the ever-growing business interest of a global industry seeking better margins. The margins come, in most part, from the burden assumed by private citizens and States which are forced to play by the rules of the market when it comes to gaining access to this basic human service.
On the other hand, the healthcare industry has used its position of power to historically delay horizontal innovation. Slow progress in implementing core technologies already adopted across other industries has handicapped systems and processes development in the healthcare space. Therefore, opportunities to reduce costs and increase efficiency for the benefit of the users continue to go unrealized.
Take for example EMR’s — the disparity of formats and technologies used to gather and protect our data is simply mind-blowing. Across the industry data remains highly fragmented, residing in a multitude of platforms: from homegrown CRM’s created by medical institutions, to generic medical CRMs and even commercial systems, like Salesforce, adapted to the healthcare space with varying degrees of success. And that’s if the institution decides to invest in EMR software at all. Some healthcare providers (and yes, also in the develop world) still think keeping medical data in the most primitive spreadsheets is good enough.
One of the most unfortunate outcomes stemming from this tech underdevelopment is the lack of data interoperability. The inability to effectively share data, and therefore build a continuum of individual health history beyond a single medical institution, dramatically raises the cost burden of healthcare on the state/patient side, while simultaneously increasing the benefits for the healthcare industry who end ups over-delivering services.
Not only does the healthcare industry benefit from an increased number of medical “transactions” (to cover lost data and/or to contextualize patient history) but it benefits further from the selling of patient data. In countries like the U.S. this data is in fact co-owned by patient and service provider alike, however, unlike the medical institutions, users don’t have any methods or tools to manage and monetize their data ownership.
In this context, blockchain technology emerges as a tool capable of challenging and changing the healthcare industry power structure at its core. This change will occur as blockchain not only tackles interoperability issues but also as the technology re-orients the data ownership and marketization paradigm away from the industry and towards the patient. Furthermore, the creation of a space where data from wearable devices and self-tracker applications can be combined with EMRs, sets the stage for significant industry disruption. Not only can the blockchain bring a better understanding to one’s health journey, but it can also bypass endemic industry inefficiency and ultimately help the user have a say when it comes to their own medical choices.
Let’s take a deeper look at what blockchain-driven disruption within the healthcare space will actually look like.
It is widely believed that the blockchain will take over all industries. In healthcare it is already being used to control the supply chain in the Pharma industry and is being deployed further in guaranteeing the integrity and liability of samples in labs and clinical essays. Nevertheless, away from the industry’s piecemeal self-adoption of the technology, healthcare institutions will be forced to integrate the technology in their front end as patients start claiming rights over their data.
Blockchain will provide users/patients with a secure and easily authenticated backdrop for storing, manipulating and exchanging their data while bypassing local EMR systems. Medical data interoperability will be achieved via a shift in the data management paradigm, from institutions to patients. Consequently, patients will gain the dual benefit of an unfragmented health data continuum and a dramatic reduction of costs.
Because the custodian of the data (the patient) is clearly represented on the blockchain, managing and granting access to it via smart contracts becomes direct and immediate. The patient can not only use the blockchain to guarantee their medical history continuum between providers but also, for the first time, to commercialize their data. Commercialization, in this case, doesn’t solely translate into monetization. Data in itself will become a new currency that the user exchanges, via the blockchain, in return for medical services. Not only will patients from underdeveloped countries and emerging economies benefit from this new currency, but the lives of millions of people living in western countries with limited access to healthcare could also be revolutionized.
In this new blockchain era, wearable devices and self-tracker applications will also play a new role. Data from wearables, fitness trackers, and other generators of quantifiable and dynamic information can be linked to the chain not only to gather, store and commercialize information but also as an additional tool to help understand, contextualize and directly improve the health journey of the patient.
“The significant amount of data being generated through these devices, such as electronic medical records (EMRs), quantified self-tracking devices, smartphone applications and personal health records (PHRs) provide an opportunity to gather insight into a patient’s health status that was previously only available through the administration of a psychometrically validated instrument,” Goldwater says.
These devices and self-tracking applications, just like healthcare institutions, have been until now the solo market beneficiaries of the data they gathered. Take, for example, Period Trackers, simple and free applications that most women between menarche and menopause with a smartphone have. For the most part, these apps have relied on the production and analysis of data for financial sustainability.
Nonetheless, it is time for these tools to serve a greater purpose and switch from being data scavengers to a much bigger role. The blockchain will allow these companies to continue being profitable. However, for the first time, their transactions will come after a clear and transparent service/data exchange. At the same time, the individual will be able to use the information gathered via these applications and combine it with traditionally generated EMR’s, not only to have a better understanding about their health history, but also to have a say in it.
Until now, our health journey has been defined by the treating of sickness and/or by prevention protocols. Nevertheless, these protocols have proven useless to prevent public health issues like, for example, the infertility pandemic. In most cases, infertility could be prevented via the interpretation of easy to obtain data which, in turn, could be linked to different risk factors. The problem is that many OBGYNs base their judgment not on dynamic data but upon old processes designed to treat women only when infertility arises, which, in many cases nowadays, is too late.
The use of the blockchain could create an entirely new paradigm in which medical prevention and decisions are not left to a sole practitioner but, rather, to smart contracts triggered by the combination of public and personal data entered in the chain. If we take the prior women’s health example, patients could upload and combine in the blockchain, menstrual, hormonal, gynecological, and genetic data — all gathered via EMRs, wearables, trackers and self-testing applications. There, it would be cross-referenced with public health and research data to trigger alerts and actions via smart contracts designed to instantly notify and guide patients meeting certain risk criteria, such as premature menopause. Medical decisions would no longer be made solely on the basis of human knowledge or discretion, but rather, relying on an incredible amount of data being contextualized in the chain.
While the ability to claim and manage our own medical data proprietorship will emerge as a newly claimed right, blockchain potential won’t stop there. Data management is only a precursor leading to the real medical revolution, a new era where individuals will be able to bypass the healthcare industry’s prerogatives and effectively take control of their bodies and health.
How blockchain could bypass the healthcare industry and help you gain control of your body and… was originally published in Data Driven Investor on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.