By Brett Furst
No longer “a solution in search of a problem,” blockchain technology has emerged as the best option for several key healthcare use cases that have taken on greater importance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Blockchain excels in use cases that require real-time access to critical information that is presented in a consistent format from trusted sources, largely due to its ability to promote trust, transparency and privacy in data-sharing.
As a result of the fragmented state of data-sharing in the healthcare industry today, false positives, duplicate records and privacy issues make it very difficult to derive actionable intelligence with confidence. Additionally, much of the healthcare industry remains reluctant to share data due to privacy and competitive barriers, further contributing to the lack of trust that hinders transparency in the industry.
Due to the inherent qualities in its design, blockchain enables competing organizations to share data in a completely auditable manner, while also maintaining their independence and privacy. These fundamental qualities of blockchain have driven the technology’s evolution into a leading solution for several critical healthcare functions during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as contact tracing, provider credentialing, and patient records-sharing.
Understanding the fundamentals of blockchain
Because blockchain technology has become such a buzzword, it’s easy to lose sight of what blockchain actually is and can do. While most healthcare executives certainly do not need to develop a profound understanding of the technology, it is helpful to build some familiarity with its fundamental elements as blockchain continues to grow more ubiquitous.
Blockchain is a type of distributed ledger technology (a database that exists across several locations or among multiple participants) that enables users to share trusted and verified information in a decentralized manner. Combining blockchain with security and cryptography technology can protect the privacy of users who contribute data while also sharing the provenance of the data, a step that enhances trust.
Blockchain technology delivers a safe, effective way to accurately document, maintain, store, and move data – whether health records or financial transactions. Via blockchain, users can directly engage with others to receive services, transfer money, and perform other common daily tasks essential to business today.
COVID-19 blockchain use cases
Blockchain’s foremost benefits are related to the greater trust and privacy enabled by the technology due to its ability to enable better data accuracy and verification. At the most basic level, blockchain changes ownership and control of data from one centralized source to multiple sources that contribute data. What follows are three critical COVID-19-related use cases for blockchain in healthcare.
Contact tracing: In the wake of the pandemic, many national, state and local governments have begun the process of contact tracing to determine potential transmission pathways of the novel coronavirus. The process involves public health workers contacting infected individuals and requesting that they list all other people they’ve come into contact with over a certain period of time. Decentralization of data enhances the process because it is reliant on using granular, sensitive information to inform public health officials of who may be at-risk of exposure based on their movements and contacts. In all steps of contract tracing, maintaining individuals’ privacy is critical. Earlier this year, blockchain platform Nodle launched a contact-tracing app that emphasized user privacy called “Coalition.”
Patient record-sharing: Among blockchain’s more valuable use cases during the pandemic is the technology’s ability to aggregate patient records during a crisis or disaster to create a “light” electronic health records system. Physicians and other disparate groups of providers can then use these “light” systems to share patient records while treating unfamiliar patients during a pandemic, as well as other crises and natural disasters. These platforms enable providers to diagnose, treat and prescribe medicine for patients who don’t have access to their usual physicians due to a crisis, while enabling doctors to review the medical histories of these unfamiliar patients. The main concept is this: Regardless of where a patient is located during a disaster, the system enables physicians to access the patient’s personal medical information to deliver needed medical services. Patient data can be provided through blockchain digital wallet, enabling access, security and integrity of data.
Provider credentialing: The process of verifying providers’ skills, training and education, known as “provider credentialing,” is frequently tedious and time-consuming for providers and payers, and may result in delays in care that contribute to poor health outcomes. However, providers can use blockchain to govern the process, allowing them to maintain control of their own data and give health systems, payers and other authorities access to their credentials as they like. To this end, five organizations earlier this year detailed plans to use a new blockchain credentialing system from ProCredEx with the goal of reducing time and costs associated with the traditional approach to credentialing.
A technology whose time has arrived
Now for the hard part: Truly realizing the value of blockchain and other distributed ledger technology requires an industry-wide cultural and paradigm shift toward broader collaboration across traditionally disparate and competitive organizations. In an industry long entrenched in its practices, this will not come easily and will necessitate intentional behavior changes to collaborate across different business interests toward a common goal. Accomplish that, however, is a question of will, not technology. Due to its ability to improve the accuracy and efficiency of contact tracing, patient record-sharing and provider credentialing, blockchain is a technology whose time has finally arrived in healthcare.
A senior executive with nearly three decades of experience in selling and managing technology solutions within the manufacturing, CPG and healthcare industries, Brett Furst serves as president of HHS Technology Group, a software and solutions company serving the needs of commercial enterprises and government agencies.