Blockchain technology is still largely associated with buying and selling bitcoin, but the healthcare industry has been looking to adopt blockchain as a solution to several medical data management issues.
A patient’s medical history can sometimes show discrepancies over time, as patients may switch doctors, and providers may use different electronic medical systems. Patients’ data is also constantly being re-entered into the system, allowing errors to potentially slip through. A medical information system with errors can leave patients and providers vulnerable to incorrect billing and fraud. In 2016 alone, Medicare fraud was responsible for about $30 million in losses in the United States. On a global scale, fraud and misuse has led to an estimated loss of $455 billion a year, according to John Meara and his fellow global health researchers from Harvard Medical School.
Many leaders in healthcare are looking to implement blockchain to create a common database of information so that doctors and insurance providers can accurately and efficiently update patients’ records, reduce time spent on administrative duties, and increase security and privacy for all parties involved. According to Heather Fraser, the Global Life Sciences and Healthcare Lead at IBM, “data captured on blockchains can be shared in real time across a group of individuals and institutions. Every event or transaction is time-stamped and becomes part of a long chain, or permanent record, which can’t be tampered with after the fact.”
Progress has already begun, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been developing a blockchain system. MedRec aims to create a “tamper-proof chain of content,” where consumers can access and grant access to their medical records. On its website, MedRec writes that the system “prioritizes patient agency,” and describes the situation to be “much like consumer finance, where an individual may have several bank accounts, credit cards, loans, and assets but no unified way to access and control them,” but with MedRec, there would be no transaction fees, or currency exchanges, as everything is within the same system. According to The Wall Street Journal, “success of the system – or any similar system – will depend on large numbers of providers and doctors opting in to the program.”
Patient medical records is not the only aspect of the healthcare industry that is adopting blockchain technology. Pharmaceutical companies and drug suppliers are also looking to address the production and distribution of counterfeit drugs. Forbes reports that companies hope to use blockchain to track each step of the supply chain to avoid further loss, especially since blockchain can also provide proof of ownership of each drug at any stage in production.
Other uses for blockchain in the healthcare industry range from granting consumers the ability to verify a health professional’s licensing to processing insurance claims more effectively. For instance, as The Wall Street Journal reports, a Nashville-based health network called Change Healthcare unites 800,000 physicians, 117 dentists, and 60,000 pharmacies to consolidate and process insurance claims. With this system, patients no longer have to call to verify information with several parties. According to Emily Vaughn, the blockchain product development director at Change Healthcare, the system can handle about 50 million events daily, and since everything operates in real time, she says that anyone would, “know at what stage in the life cycle the claim is in…there’s a shared understanding of what the next steps are.” Moreover, since blockchain is built on a decentralized network, where information is not stored onto only one computer, Vaughn says that “it’s more resistant to attack and manipulation.”
Blockchain technology continues to be on the radar as more and more companies seek to find address issues and cut down costs for consumers and industries. As Meara writes, “blockchain technology can help us dissolve transnational financing barriers, ease inequitable capital access and build more efficient means of distributing help where it is needed most. And it can do this all while curbing fraud with unprecedented transparency.”
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