Recently in blockchain news, 50 Cent forgot he had Bitcoin and, by VICE’s estimates, is now standing on a $9.2 million cryptocurrency fortune. Maybe this means his tour of signing vodka bottles at your local liquor store is over. But there's much more than Bitcoin happening in the blockchain technology that made 50’s recent wealth possible. As companies look to the blockchain to trade stocks, create open market spaces, and even to get divorced, there’s another industry looking at utilizing blockchain technology: healthcare.
At its essence, the blockchain is just a record of transactions. It’s important to know that the blockchain record is public and decentralized. The transactions made are public, but they’re linked to an electronic address—not your identity—so your friends can scope the blockchain without finding out about your pizza for breakfast habit.
Currently, there are three major ways healthcare companies plan to utilize the blockchain to change your healthcare experience: to store your medical record, to monitor opioid prescriptions, and to create a more open medical research market.
How could this affect you as a patient? Imagine this: You break a bone, something that happens to 40 percent of you in your lifetime. After your visit to the emergency room, the details of which are stored on the blockchain, you head home with a morphine prescription and make a follow-up visit with your doctor. At that appointment, viewing your X-ray is as easy as your two-tap Uber Eats habit. In fact, all you have to do is give your doc access to your personal blockchain records through an app like this one and then bam—the two of you can view your nasty foot fracture on X-ray images downloaded through the cloud to your phone. Together you can also view your recent time-stamped blood draw, how many steps (or hobbles) you’ve taken today, and thanks to the blockchain’s immutability, view everything that’s ever happened to you since your health record started on the blockchain.
Your doc can then check your prescription drug history before writing you a refill for that morphine, and since state monitoring programs alone have shown a 30 percent decrease in physicians prescribing opioids, using the blockchain could have the potential to significantly impact the current US opioid crisis through prescription monitoring.
After your appointment, you could enroll in a research study monitoring your crutch use, and while your identity will remain confidential, your medical blockchain data will be shared and compiled with others who have the same injury. As these cases are studied together, the data may reveal changes needed in practice for the best outcome, so you may even impact the way medicine treats a condition. All of this could be your new medical reality.
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With current political discussions surrounding the future of US healthcare and Bitcoin’s elevation of blockchain awareness, Jack Shaw, executive director of the American Blockchain Council says, “This is a year we’re going to see a huge growth in tests applying blockchain technology to various areas in the healthcare field.”
Healthcare industry experts assert that the blockchain could heavily impact chronic disease management, encouraging providers to design more tailored treatment plans and empowering individuals to have better access to their health data, something that’s been challenging since patients lack access to their health information due to the country’s currently fragmented electronic medical record system.
“What happens now is the medical system is very much built around patients going to the doctor when there’s a problem and essentially the doctor is then treating them when they’re in a crisis mode, but when you think about all of the diseases today in society, they're generally behavioral diseases: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer,” says cardiologist and blockchain health app Minthealth co-founder and CEO Samir Damani.
That’s why companies like his are looking to gamify your health experience, incentivizing you to make better health decisions through earned app tokens that you trade in for discounts on insurance premiums or a gym membership. You could earn rewards for quitting smoking or for having a more active lifestyle. And since at least 117 million Americans are affected by a chronic disease, programs incentivizing patients to be more active in their health could have the potential to decrease unnecessary hospitalizations and emergency room visits while increasing disease prevention efforts in diagnoses like obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“People don’t realize even 40 percent of all cancers are all preventable. And these are related to behaviors. We’re living in a world where [patients] are not able to access their information easily," Damani says. He claims that using the blockchain would allow individuals to have a self-sovereign health record with incentives that reward positive and proactive behaviors. There will even be social sharing elements involved too.
So yes, you may have the ability to share even more about your personal life and experiences. But if the idea of all of this monitoring and sharing between the blockchain and your health habits concerns you, you’re not alone. Especially with fusions among companies to create their own healthcare plans, like the recent Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, JPMorgan alliance, consumers should be questioning what information is being used to calculate their individual healthcare costs.
Steven Teppler, co-chair of the Internet of Things (IoT) Committee of the American Bar Association says, “If Amazon has access to how much you buy fried or salty food at Whole Foods, there may be an issue as to, ‘Do they use this information in determining your insurance rates or determining how much to charge you for medication knowing that it’s going to cost a lot over a period of time?’ This has huge privacy implications, huge invasion of privacy implications.”
Experts also argue that healthcare’s employment of the blockchain isn’t as promising as its rising popularity in the industry might lead us to believe. There are concerns with blockchain’s data confidentiality being more pseudo-anonymous than anonymous; others have voiced worry about the extreme accuracy and consistency of data integrity needed to record something as sensitive as health information on the blockchain, especially since it could be used to make life-altering medical decisions. There are also consumer concerns that insurance companies could charge you more for the same behaviors that they’re rewarding others to stop, such as smoking cigarettes. For these reasons, as healthcare companies begin to start looking at how to harness blockchain’s potential, it’s important to remember that the rules are still being written.
As John Paller, executive steward of the ETHDenver Hackathon says, “We’re very early in this. Imagine the internet in 1994. That’s where we are in blockchain.”
With blockchain at the center of healthcare’s current industry buzz, it’s possible that in a few years, there will be major disruptions in this space, and ones which have the potential to improve patient experience significantly. For that alone, pour me a glass of 50 Cent’s vodka.
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