Though the digital health movement is rapidly gaining traction, implementation of innovations like artificial intelligence (AI) technologies presents a challenge. These innovations have been supported in clinical trials, but widespread implementation requires that the medical community can entrust all aspects of these systems. By enhancing trust, transparency, and privacy in data sharing, blockchain technology may aid in the acceptance of digital health solutions.
Blockchain technology dates back to 2009, when it was created to manage the crypto-currency Bitcoin. Its primary function is to provide a decentralized collection of records that cannot be changed or compromised. Originally, it eliminated the need for a centralized bank that manages all financial transactions. Blockchain technology has now expanded from finance to include the pharmaceutical and healthcare markets as well.
The technology allows patients to give consent to different uses of their health data and have security in knowing who sees what. Blockchain already applies to all Estonian citizens’ healthcare records and is beginning to be developed by many companies and researchers. One advantage in using blockchain in healthcare is that records in these systems cannot be altered, increasing patient safety and preventing fraud.
By digitally storing trusted healthcare records without the need of a centralized party, blockchain allows for validation of clinical credentials between multiple physicians. This would greatly improve the current system, in which doctors must often go to great lengths to gather bits and pieces of patient data. Blockchain also holds utility in research by providing more public records of data and activity, allowing researchers to better communicate and replicate different studies.
Blockchain has several shortcomings, one being its slow speed of transactions. Being that uploaded material must be extremely secure and permanent, this requires intensive digital work that takes time. The systems are still largely unproven in the healthcare industry as well, meaning that outcomes could vary. Additionally, data in the blockchain cannot be deleted, creating potential conflicts with the European Union General Data Protection Regulation that allows patients to opt out of their data usage and storage.
Nonetheless, blockchain’s promise in creating secure and permanent records has gained public attention, with many referring to it as ‘Internet 3.0’. Many apps and AI technologies that have been introduced to the medical field lack validation. Blockchain provides an opportunity for data regarding these technologies to be openly shared to better evaluate and understand them. Using blockchain in this manner could enhance how research evidence is brought to the attention of groups like the National Health Service and the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
This enhanced transfer of information may facilitate the adoption of AI devices in medicine. Blockchain may also provide trusted data and catalyze interactions between researchers that lead to the creation of novel digital health solutions. The potential implications of blockchain in healthcare are vast; however, more research and evidence regarding its success in the industry are needed before widespread acceptance occurs.
While #blockchain is used for #healthcare in Estonia and has considerable promise, there’s plenty holding it back for wider use https://t.co/BerCtKeJa5 @TheLancet thoughtful & balanced, by @grazulis @johndatascience David Clifton pic.twitter.com/jVF6plTwme
— Eric Topol (@EricTopol) June 20, 2019