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Blockchain in medicine: New possibilities for storing, processing and managing medical data

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Blockchain technology offers a revolutionary approach to the storage, processing and management of medical data in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors that is far more convenient, safe and effective than its predecessors.

Distributed ledgers can be used in many ways, ranging from managing patients' medical records to the allocation of donated organs. We’ll take a look at some of the potential applications in this article.

What problems can the blockchain solve in medicine?

One of the core issues in modern healthcare infrastructure is the absence of effective tools for sharing medical data, with patients usually required to bring all their medical records and retake tests when going to a new clinic. This is very inconvenient and, more importantly, can lead to incorrect treatments.

The second but no less important issue is the absence of complete patient history data, which is stored across numerous organizations and never exhaustive.

The third problem – the scourge of the pharmaceutical industry – is low-quality or fake medicines, which represent a global market worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The blockchain, thanks to its transparency, immutability, high level of security and other advantages, is able to solve all of these problems.

What are the healthcare applications of the blockchain?

Protecting the medical data of patients, securely sharing them and accelerating the data exchange process are some of the main things that the blockchain can solve.

The technology can be successfully applied to the following areas:

  • managing electronic medical records;
  • implementing transparent drug supply chains;
  • fighting low-quality and counterfeit medicines;
  • monitoring the allocation of donated organs;
  • carrying out medical research;
  • improving insurance procedures;
  • analysing medical data.

Electronic medical records

Electronic medical records are one potential application of blockchain technology in medicine.

The blockchain ensures the immutability of data, allows you to track its origin, and guarantees the secure storage of patients’ medical records.

The blockchain can greatly simplify the exchange of data between various participants in the medical services market, such as clinics, research companies and insurers.

In many countries, sensitive patient data cannot be processed without the patient’s consent. The blockchain will allow patients to control exactly how their data is used, transferred and processed.

For example, the MedRec blockchain platform (a joint project between the MIT Media Lab and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center) gives patients the ability to control their data and assign access rights.

Here are some of the main advantages of using blockchain for storing and exchanging medical data:

  • Patient-led management and oversight of the data. One of the main advantages of the blockchain is that patients can independently manage their data and control access to it. Consequently, there are no barriers when it comes to patients accessing the medical certificates they need and, where necessary, transferring medical data, for example to other clinics;
  • Immutability. The blockchain is a decentralized database characterized by data immutability, guaranteeing that medical data cannot be changed by anyone without permission;
  • Reliability. All medical records on the blockchain are signed by the data source, which makes it easy to check the accuracy of data and reject false records;
  • Security. Storing data in a decentralized network makes it more secure from hacker attacks and less vulnerable to simply being lost;
  • Confidentiality. Electronic medical records are encrypted and protected by cryptographic algorithms, and can only be accessed using the patient's private keys.

Managing pharmaceutical supply chains and counterfeits

Another medical use case for blockchain technology is supply chain management and the fight against counterfeit medicines.

The basic idea is that any transactions associated with prescription drugs link all of the participants in the process – manufacturers, distributors, doctors, pharmacists and patients – and immediately detect and prevent any unauthorized adjustments to prescriptions or attempts at counterfeiting.

Additionally, blockchain records about drug manufacturers, drug serial numbers, package numbers and more can be easily verified, assisting in the fight against counterfeiting. This makes it possible to ensure quality control in medicines and track counterfeits across all stages of the supply chain.

Allocation of donated organs

In order to carry out an organ transplant, the consent of the donor is first required, after which the organ’s origin must be traced in order to make sure that all regulatory requirements are met. Clearly, the life chances of patients in need of transplants often depend on how quickly the operation is carried out. The blockchain can boost the efficiency and speed of this process.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention of the United Arab Emirates has developed a system for managing donor organs on the blockchain, logging donor consent and tracing the origins of organs.

Medical research

Blockchain technologies can also have a positive impact on the effectiveness of medical research.

First of all, the blockchain makes it much easier for patients to grant permission for their medical data to be used for various kinds of research.

Secondly, in addition to patient consent data, the blockchain can also conveniently store other kinds of data from a wide range of sources, such as:

  • data about previously conducted clinical trials;
  • data about patient care;
  • data about medicine supplies.

Being able to see the big picture and analyse disparate data classes helps make medical research more effective.

The blockchain also lets you eliminate data falsification and ensure its integrity. Here are the key advantages of using the blockchain for medical research:

  • Accuracy of research. The data generated in the blockchain by a patient or another participant in the system is timestamped, which helps make research more accurate. Furthermore, the technology solves the problem of determining the origin of data, as it can be tracked at any point at which it is entered into the database;
  • Data availability. The blockchain provides permanent access to real-time medical data, which is of great value to researchers;
  • High levels of confidentiality. A reliable and secure blockchain can incentivize many people, clinics and other healthcare entities to share large amounts of data about various subjects, such as nutrition, healthy living, the environment and more.

Medical insurance

Health insurance could become a promising area for blockchain applications in medicine. Transparency of information, decentralization and immutability of data are all aspects of the blockchain that could benefit every participant in the insurance chain and help to reduce mutual distrust. Insurance companies will be able to reduce costs and patients will be reimbursed much faster in the event of insured events, particularly through to the use of smart contracts.

Traditional centralized databases used in medicine allow data to be corrected and deleted. An immutable distributed ledger is therefore more suitable for storing important medical data, including when it comes to insurance.

Problems

The blockchain is a new technology and still has room to grow. In medicine, as in other industries, it remains at an early stage of implementation. Many medical institutions believe that they are not competent enough in technological matters to implement it. Patients also lack knowledge of the blockchain, while the technology itself is still very immature. In addition, the economic viability of this solution is not yet fully clear.

The lack of a single, trusted vendor that people could “purchase the blockchain” from is another push factor. Additionally, the fact that it is a new technology means that new infrastructure must be built from scratch, along with modifications to operational processes and new payment solutions, APIs and more. This is also intimidating.

Another issue is data access. There are many organizations in the healthcare industry that are not willing to share data, while not all patients want to manage their medical data. In fact, many even don’t know how to do it.

Scalability presents a further challenge. Huge volumes of medical data are difficult to process, so medical blockchains must be very productive while remaining as secure and decentralized as possible. As we know, it isn’t easy to achieve all of these things at the same time.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the existing medical systems used within individual clinics, hospitals and networks of medical institutions are not always safe. Cybersecurity experts have long been talking about the theoretical possibility of attacks carried out in order to change treatment protocols, including for specific patients.

If goes without saying that blockchain technology has the potential to completely change the way medical data is stored and shared, increase the confidentiality of patient data, streamline the work of all participants in the medical sector and, simply put, revolutionize the healthcare industry. Well-known companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Accenture, Hashed Health, iSolve and Patientory are already making a huge contribution to the development of blockchain technologies in healthcare. For now, however, there is clearly much work to do in order to encourage widespread adoption of the blockchain and its innovations in the conservative medical industry.