4 key ways blockchain can help health systems

Healthcare researchers are focusing more and more on the potential benefits of blockchain technology, a trend explored by the authors of a new analysis in the International Journal of Medical Informatics.

“The technology of blockchain, with inherited characteristics such as decentralization, transparency and anonymization, was introduced in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin in 2008,” wrote lead author Anton Hasselgren, Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Norway, and colleagues. “Bitcoin, with close to 400 million completed transactions, represents a solid use-case that blockchain technology works. This has led to discussions and proposals that blockchain technology could be useful in a range of other data-driven domains, including healthcare.”

Hasselgren et al. conducted a thorough search of the available literature on blockchain in healthcare. The studies included in their analysis emphasized improvements in these four areas:    

1. Access control. This was the most commonly explored improvement, coming up in 35% of the papers analyzed by Hasselgren and colleagues.

“Most papers envisioned the use of blockchain in health record systems,” the authors wrote. “Within these, the use of blockchain to build functionality for sharing of data within clinical teams and between clinicians and researchers were the most targeted use cases.”

Access control is crucial when storing personal health information, and the ability to have more confidence in the security of such data is one of the primary reasons blockchain is gaining momentum in the healthcare sector.

2. Interoperability. Information systems don’t always communicate with one another as they should, leading healthcare providers unable to access important data. Twenty-seven percent of the included studies discussed interoperability.

“For example, interoperability was achieved by referencing FHIR resources (URLs) in some solutions,” the authors wrote. “Another approach was to provide a translator component as a gateway of the data blocks, translating formats using a different standard.”

3. Provenance. Data provenance, which “refers to the historical record of data and their origins,” was discussed in 12% of the included studies. Improving the “auditability and transparency” of an electronic health record has obvious benefits for health systems everywhere.  

4. Data integrity. Using blockchain to improve data integrity was mentioned in 28% of the included studies, a sign that researchers see potential in the technology.

Is healthcare data meeting the expectations of various stakeholders? Is anything missing? These are crucial questions related to data integrity.