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Blockchain and Healthcare Data: Tracking and Sharing Healthcare Data

By Satish Balakrishnan | Reviewed by Kuntal ChakrabortyCheckmark
Published: November 5, 2021
Key Takeaways

The advantages of healthcare data that is accessible to providers and researchers needs to be balanced with privacy and security concerns. The immutable ledger of blockchain may be just what the healthcare industry needs. 

Source: iStock/LeoWolfert

In recent years the healthcare industry has changed significantly by adopting technological innovation. Several crucial factors influence the way they make use of technologies, and these can be related to Security, Data Privacy, Regulations, Integrations, Collaborations, and Cost-effectiveness. When it comes to healthcare, as in many industries, data is gold.

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When it comes to research, the more diverse the data, the better the answer to all the questions. A simple example is found when someone performs research based on data derived from the population of a specific country, the outcome may not be entirely applicable for the people on the opposite side of the world.

Recently, there has been much emphasis on security and data privacy, due to which newer regulations have been implemented. These regulations could further restrict the movement of data, making data more difficult to access for researchers but also may impede cooperation and coordination between a patient's healthcare providers. (Read also: Who Owns the Data in the Blockchain - and Why That Matters.)

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Sharing Healthcare Data

Researchers and clinical professionals benefit vastly by collaborating and sharing data and electronic health information. Nevertheless, this is quite complicated because of the diverse set of tools and software used and the lack of interoperability.

Health Level Seven (HL7) is a set of international standards and guiding principles for sharing data between various providers. Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), also known as "fire," is built upon HL7 and uses modern web-based API technology.

FHIR enables convenient communication across facilities, software or organizations using APIs. However, it still does not effectively handle complex security, patient consent, data traceability or identity verification-related problems. Blockchain, being an immutable ledger of transactions, can address the mentioned issues.

How Can Blockchain be Used for Healthcare Data?

The concept of blockchain is quite simple. Theoretically, the blocks contain information, and they are linked to the next block using a chain with a timestamp on the data so that it is not possible to tamper with them. (Read also: An Introduction to Blockchain Technology.)

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Chaining is a process wherein a block contains the digital fingerprint of a previous block. Once the blocks are chained together, it is almost impossible to edit the data in the block without changing the other linked blocks. Being distributed, everyone who participates in the network (nodes) gets a copy of the entire Blockchain. So, it becomes difficult for anyone to launch an attack or manipulate the data, provided that the number of participants in the blockchain network is significant.

Blockchain makes this possible because it timestamps each transaction, grants visibility into the transaction information but not the data itself, and copies itself onto multiple computers or nodes.

Blockchain can play a role in identity and tracking permissions, controlled access to facilities, and sharing medical records or other health data. Today a patient might have multiple records with multiple service providers.

When a patient goes to another facility, their data is not portable or easily transferable in many cases. This means they may end up doing the same tests or providing the same data multiple times. With blockchain, all the service providers can rely on and trust a single identifier. The patient can control their data and choose to share relevant information with the concerned authorities.

Disadvantages of Public Blockchain and Healthcare Information

There are also some limitations and challenges with blockchain. For instance, it is not feasible to store a large amount of data within the blockchain. Most of the blockchain projects tend to build about Ethereum and the ERC20 standards.

Ethereum blockchain has a cost associated with it to perform a transaction - known as "gas." If one wants to store data, the gas price will be high and impractical. Adopting a private blockchain can overcome this limitation. (Read also: Parachains and the Internet of Blockchain.)

Private blockchain is centralized and controlled by a group of individuals, a consortium of hospitals, or a government body that can zero the transaction fee. The other alternative is to store the data on secured cloud storage or on-premise storage and then store the hash of that on a blockchain which would be immutable. One could also leverage the Blockchain as a Service (BCaaS) platform offered by all the major cloud providers.

The Future of Blockchain in Healthcare

The benefits of blockchain and FHIR are significant, although it might take a conscious and significant effort to reorganize and realign the IT systems to take advantage of these technologies.

Public blockchain may not be suitable to store the entire electronic health records as it would be inefficient and expensive. Establishing a private blockchain might be an alternative, depending on how it is managed and run. Organizations and companies might opt to use cryptocurrencies to monetize the data and encourage sharing data for various reasons like research, clinical studies, or insurance.

Ideally, an individual’s data owner should be the individual themself and should have complete control over his data. The next few years could see many Healthcare organizations moving towards these technologies to improve their collaboration with other organizations and provide patients with a better experience overall.

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Written by Satish Balakrishnan

Profile Picture of Satish Balakrishnan

Satish is a Lead Cloud Solution Architect handling the APAC region. He is the author of the book "Terraforming the Cloud".

Over the years Satish has worked for Cloud Service providers, top Consulting companies and start ups. He is passionate about Cloud, Blockchain, DevSecOps , Healthtech and Medtech.

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