Blockchain Creeping into Health Care—No Longer Just for Bitcoin
Although most commonly associated with cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology may provide health care entities with improved data integrity by decentralizing health information while reducing transaction costs through increased efficiency.
A “blockchain” is defined as “a shared, immutable record of peer-to-peer transactions built from linked transaction blocks and stored in a distributed ledger.”1 For those non-computer people, a blockchain is essentially a secure information trail that records by whom, when, and how a piece of information is accessed. This technology records and verifies when a piece of information is accessed and/or modified, and that modification gets locked in via encryption. The encrypted modification is called a “block.” Every time that piece of information is modified, it goes through the same process, creating new blocks, which are successively linked, resulting in a chain of blocks or “blockchain.” While encryption helps secure the information, a second layer of security comes from the decentralized storage of blockchains across many servers.
Given the increased data security, efficiency and trust that can come with blockchain technology, it is no surprise that the health care industry has taken notice. On April 2, 2018, five major health care organizations – Humana, MultiPlan, Quest Diagnostics, Optum, and UnitedHealthcare – announced a plan to launch a blockchain pilot program aimed at improving data quality, reducing administrative costs, and increase access to care. Specifically, this technology may be valuable in several areas of health care, including securely linking health care records across providers, gathering large quantities of patient data for health initiatives, and enabling patients to securely access their longitudinal records.2
While blockchain may offer a promising new way to secure and store health care information, it is not a cure-all for data-related concerns. Currently, blockchain technology is “not optimized for high volume data that needs absolute privacy and instantaneous access within a single organization.”3 The implication of certain regulatory requirements, such as HIPAA, still need to be considered. And, the million-dollar question: what will this cost? Yes, blockchain may ultimately reduce costs for entities by eliminating intermediaries, but what will it cost to implement and maintain?
Blockchain technology is still in its infancy and needs be tested specifically for the health care industry. Therefore, health care organizations need not jump on the blockchain bandwagon yet. However, blockchains may be worth keeping an eye on as the technology advances and becomes more relevant to health care.
1 RJ Krawiec et al., Blockchain: Opportunities for Health Care, at 2, 12 (Deloitte, Aug. 2016), available at https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/public-sector/articles/blockchain-opportunities-for-health-care.html (last visited April 19, 2018).
2 Chet Stagnaro, White Paper: Innovative Blockchain Uses in Health Care, at 5-10 (Freed Associates, Oct. 2017), available at https://www.freedassociates.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Blockchain_White_Paper.pdf (last visited April 19, 2018).
3 Krawiec, supra, at 3.
About the Author
Erin Burns is an attorney practicing out of our Madison office. She is a member of the Health Care Law, Litigation and Labor & Employment Relations practice groups. Contact Erin by email or by phone at 608.252.9226.
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