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Looking Ahead at Blockchain in Healthcare

Jan 28, 2019

Pharmaceutical Executive talks to industry innovation luminary Rick Krohn, M.A., M.B.A., President of HealthSense, Inc., to assess the pharma applications of one of tech’s hottest solutions – blockchain.

Pharm Exec: For many people, blockchain is an obscure technology – can you explain it in simple terms?

Rick KrohnRick Krohn: Blockchains are peer-to-peer systems of 3 components: a globally distributed network of computers; a secure, shared transaction ledger; and digital transactions. A distributed network of computers stores an identical database — a ledger, and approved network members can add or review transactions to each ledgers’ block. The central feature of this capacity - the distributed ledger guarantees data integrity while creating a secure data sharing environment that is both scalable and adaptive to healthcare’s trends towards collaboration and personalization. The vision for blockchain in healthcare is to create a trusted, common database of health information that all stakeholders can securely share across information platforms.

How can blockchain impact the pharma industry?

For pharma, particularly Big Pharma, the benefits of blockchain technology include reducing or eliminating fraud, establishing a foundation of trust, data integrity and secure data sharing, improving asset management and supply chain, and streamlining complex clinical and financial transactions.

Blockchain can mitigate the risks of a compromised supply chain — associated with counterfeit, unapproved and fake drugs. A Blockchain-enabled chain of custody model reveals where the drug was manufactured, where it has been since, and when it has been disbursed to patients. And in the U.S. With the opioid epidemic raging, blockchain could offer an innovative way to ensure that abuse-prone medications are better controlled. The impact could be huge — it’s estimated that the pharmaceutical industry could achieve savings of $200 billion by introducing a blockchain-of-custody for the supply chain.

Clinical trials are another rich opportunity — blockchain technology can address issues ranging from the tracking and sharing of data to the need for transparency and privacy for patients. The technology can directly increase the quantity and quality of patients recruited for clinical trials — the distributed ledger could allow individual patients to store their medical data by anonymous methods, making it visible to trial recruiters. It can overcome the problems of fraudulent results and removal of data and streamline communication between doctors and patients.

Blockchain can create a data sharing environment that keeps health data private and secure while embracing the ever-expanding nodes of data and catalog of connected medical devices. With a centralized ledger and clean data repositories, medical research, clinical trials, treatment protocols and personalized medicine can all become vastly more effective. Applied to population health, by connecting stakeholders with more timely, complete patient data, researchers could develop more effective medication protocols.   

Where else is blockchain likely to have an impact?

The holy grail is a truly integrated EMR. A blockchain-enabled EMR model can empower trusted parties across the spectrum of healthcare venues — hospitals, practices, clinics, payers and patients to view and populate records from multiple databases on a shared ledger. The flow of securely encrypted data can be shared among an unlimited number of non-integrated, approved stakeholders. But there are many other intriguing applications — Medical Research, Medical Tourism, AI, and Peer-to-Peer Insurance illustrate the scope of potential applications.  

Are there obstacles to adoption?

Always. Integration with existing systems will be very challenging, and regulatory concerns alone will likely slow implementation. Any Blockchain solution that handles large amounts of patient data in real time will need to be faster than is currently available in most enterprise systems. Equally challenging is the need to address privacy and data protection considerations unique to the healthcare industry. And because blockchain as a class of technology is still in its’ youth, the full dimension of these obstacles has yet to be revealed. 

Looking ahead, what can we expect from blockchain in pharma?

A blockchain solution for pharma must meet 3 benchmarks: scalability, access security and data privacy. As healthcare data continues to pile up, a blockchain solution must absorb ever -growing transactions and throughput. Security and privacy (in compliance with regs. like HITECH and HIPAA) must also be baked into any Blockchain solution. Its’ ability to impact healthcare will depend in the industry’s willingness to invest in technical infrastructure – blockchain is costly, and there are some concerns regarding its integration with existing technology. Most likely, adoption and implementation of Blockchain in healthcare will be incremental and evolutionary, as business models gravitate towards clinical collaboration and data normalization.

 

Rick Krohn ([email protected]) is the author of more than 100 articles on a wide range of health technology topics and 2 HIMSS books detailing Connected Health Innovation. His latest book is Connected Health: Improving Care, Safety, and Efficiency with Wearables and IoT solutions.

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