In the early 2010s, the U.S. government began pushing for expanded use of digitization and technology use in healthcare. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, healthcare providers needed to adopt the use of electronic medical records (EMR) to maintain their reimbursement levels for Medicare and Medicaid.
Since then, technology providers have worked to improve data management for all facets of healthcare, improving accuracy and efficiency. But EMRs remain a challenge. Healthcare providers find themselves caught between caring for patients and caring for patient information in the midst of complex data security laws and hackers bent on exposing every system.
Relief for these problems may come from a surprising place. Blockchain, the technology underlying the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, has emerged as a potential solution for the issues the healthcare industry faces in modernizing EMRs. But like any solution, blockchain brings its own challenges when applied to patient record keeping.
What is Blockchain?
An in-depth description of what blockchain is would take more than a few simple lines, but it’s important to understand the basics to grasp why it is being considered as a technology to support EMRs.
Written as the underlying record-keeping structure for Bitcoin, blockchain has rocketed past the confines of its original purpose to become a secure records management tool for everything from supply chains to contracts.
Essentially, blockchain is exactly that – a chain of blocks of information. Those blocks, however, are stored in a distributed manner and are validated by multiple parties, becoming a decentralized ledger. When a change or addition to the chain is made – ie when a block is added – a majority of those parties must agree that the change is valid, or it doesn’t become part of the ledger.
Why Blockchain is Being Considered for EMRs
The way blockchain was designed makes it an easy solution to consider for health records management. It is intended to be immutable, easily accessible, and secure. There are additional advantages beyond the basics of blockchain, however.
Patients are in control of their data: Currently, medical records are held by healthcare professionals. Despite a patient having the rights to all their data, they are required to request and transfer information from one provider to another. Not only does this create potentially dangerous delays in information (see the next item below), it also removes the patient from having agency over their own information.
Blockchain would put control in the hands of the patient. Instead of a provider holding the records, the patient would grant a provider access to the chain that holds their medical information.
Instant access to a complete medical history: As mentioned above, current medical records must be requested to be shared, and data must be sent from one provider to another once the request has been made. This can put a patient into a difficult, and even dangerous, position. For instance, take a patient with a medical emergency, visiting a hospital they have no affiliation with. If the patient can’t tell the doctors they have an allergy to some medications, the medical professionals can only make an educated guess.
If medical records are stored on a blockchain, though, accessing the chain would provide medical staff with a complete history, immediately. The result is better, safer decisions are handled in a timely fashion because of accurate, consistent, and easily distributed data.
Changes are transparent to the stakeholders: Mistakes can be made, even when recording data in a medical record. Without requesting a copy of their medical records, however, patients may have a difficult time or be delayed in identifying misinformation in their data.
This is just one example of why transparent medical records are important. Because the blockchain holding the records is visible to the stakeholders, it is easy and quick to see when data is added. Also, if unauthorized changes are made it’s a simple task to identify and deal with those.
Concerns Around Using Blockchain with EMRs
Despite the benefits that blockchain brings to medical records management, healthcare data and the industry as a whole bring a unique set of challenges that must be addressed for the technology to be leveraged effectively.
Storage: Financial transactions – like the one’s blockchain was designed for – are relatively small. Medical records, on the other hand, can be extensive. In addition to the sheer volume of information that may be part of a record, it may also contain images, x-rays, scans, and other information that requires a high storage capacity. This is a challenge for blockchain to deal with.
Security and data regulation: The security of medical records is a major concern. So is following medical data storage regulations, such as HIPPA. Any solution using blockchain must address these concerns. It is essential that data remain secure at rest and during transfer. Because of this, it may be a requirement that the chain store only highly encrypted data, or that some information is encrypted. Regulatory guidelines are behind in defining these pieces for blockchain’s use with medical records.
Skills gap in healthcare IT: Both security and blockchain technologies are areas which have a high demand for talented resources, but for which there is a shortage of people qualified to work in. For medical records to use blockchain, the solutions must be solidly architected and well executed. Many healthcare providers will need to look to services outside of their own IT for help in these areas, even to implement an out-of-the-box solution that integrates with their existing systems.
It’s rare to find a silver bullet for a problem as complex as patient health records. Yet it’s a critical problem to address. Solutions that get the healthcare industry closer to highly available and secure records are worth exploring, and blockchain may just be the closest thing to an encompassing solution that the industry currently has at its fingertips.