Blockchain: The Innovation Healthcare Needs Most

In a world constantly changed by the digital transformation, one industry consistently lags behind all the rest: healthcare. For those within the field, it is open knowledge that while other industries are quick to adopt and implement novel technologies, in healthcare the change comes slowly.

This occurs for several reasons, but one of the overarching themes in relation to the issue of technology implementation is the way that technology and information in healthcare intersect.

There are some components of healthcare wherein the benefit is clear. After navigating who is responsible for costs incurred, professionals and patients are usually on the same page.

For example, developers are becoming increasingly adept at creating cancer screening technologies that allow healthcare providers unprecedented clarity. From oral cancer to breast cancer, new technologies are changing how we’re able to assess tissue and tumors. And those types of innovations are easier for everyone to collectively accept.

But when it comes to how records and information are stored and shared, there is much debate and little cohesion. Even when providers or organizations utilize similar systems, they rarely adopt the same one. Thus, one of the industry’s core problems currently lies at the basic level of communication and data storage and sharing.

A study by Johns Hopkins found that inefficiencies and errors in healthcare are responsible for one-third of all deaths in the United States — a whopping 250,000 people die a year, to be exact, because of it.

In a world where tech reigns, this seems so unnecessary. The healthcare industry has taken on a free-market approach, but the problem with not adopting a true synchronized system is that patients and providers alike pay.

Why Healthcare Struggles With Record Keeping

While most industries began with paper records, healthcare differs in that the shift to electronic health or medical records (EHR or EMR) has come slowly and has been fraught with challenges for providers.

Mattie Quinn writes for Governing, “About one-fifth of doctors don’t have an electronic health record system, commonly called an EHR, implemented in their offices. For those who do, frustrations with the technology are well documented. Only 34 percent of doctors surveyed by the American Medical Association said they were happy with their electronic systems.”

There are two primary reasons that EHRs are failing to deliver. The first is that when providers adopt EHRs, they rarely are able to interact with other providers who are utilizing a cohesive system. So, if a patient needs records sent between offices, those electronic records are often printed and mailed, or faxed.

As the healthcare professionals at GoHealth note, “More and more hospitals and clinics are adopting electronic health record systems. The problem? They’re not always compatible with each other. The diversity of IT systems in healthcare is not a good thing. Imagine needing to send files to your team members, with each of them on a different operating system that may or may not be compatible with yours. It’s a data management nightmare!”

The second challenge is that EHRs offer a means of collecting massive amounts of data. Duquesne University reports, “Big data incorporates healthcare data sets that are highly complex and large. The information is difficult to manage using conventional systems. The data management process is complicated by the speed at which the information must be processed and the diversity of data types.”

That reality puts a serious strain on the workload of providers, often on the frontlines of collecting that data. Across the board, providers note that the time drain and the decrease EHRs cause their productivity seriously impacts their ability to spend the time they need with patients.

Becker’s Health Information notes, “A study conducted by the University of California-Davis found a 25-33 percent drop in physician productivity in the initial implementation phases of the EMR. While ultimately the goal is to increase productivity in the office or hospital, expect to see a significant drop in productivity, and ultimately revenue, in the first several weeks, and perhaps longer.”

Not only are EHRs at times failing to bolster efficiency, a Mayo Clinic study found that between 2011 and 2014 the amount of paperwork providers must complete increased by 45-54 percent and was the number one reason of physician burnout.

While healthcare is attempting to take advantage of the innovation available in terms of the care and keeping of patient data, there still remains a lot of area for growth and change.

Blockchain May Be Healthcare’s Solution

In some ways, it is ironic. EHRs present the promise of efficiency and accuracy, but in reality they have been known to decrease those very things.

Thus, the obstacle is implementing a system that everyone can take advantage of, as well as one that does not leave providers spending the majority of their time inputting massive amounts of data. The hope after all, is not just that the data is stored accurately but that ultimately patients receive better care, and that will only happen if physicians have adequate time to spend with them.

This is where innovation is needed, though it may be on the horizon. There are companies who act as a middle man as data is passed between healthcare providers, and that’s something. It’s providing a streamlined process for some providers and patients who happen to fall under the same information sharing company.

However, perhaps a better remedy would be to think outside the now-traditional method of sharing data, and instead look to an already developed method of accessing data: blockchain. Sure, currently blockchain is being utilized by the likes of Bitcoin, but there is potential for the structure of blockchain to do more.

Megan Molteni writes for Wired, “Rather than having one central administrator that acts as a gatekeeper to data — a list of digital transactions — there’s one shared ledger, but it’s spread across a network of synchronized, replicated databases visible to anyone with access. Which gives it unprecedented security benefits. Hacking one block in the chain is impossible without simultaneously hacking every other block in the chain’s chronology.”

Patient information would not only be safer given the fact that it wouldn’t be passed back and forth but would remain within the blockchain — thus it would likely also make things more efficient for providers.

When healthcare providers access the ledger they would not need to scroll through every entry to get caught up, instead they would see the current status of the patient immediately on the ledger.

So for example, if someone came into the emergency room their attending physician would be able to immediately see what medications they were taking, instead of needing to work through pages of faxed documents.

For safety and ease of use, blockchain makes sense for healthcare. Indeed, many industry professionals are beginning to recognize as much. It seems posed to remove many of the challenges facing healthcare’s information storing and sharing.

The obvious issue here is that though blockchain may make sense, we’re talking about an industry that is known for its reluctance to adopt innovative technologies. Again, one-fifth of providers are still relying on paper records.

Hopefully, professionals will continue to recognize the potential of blockchain. When the industry is able to implement the right form of record keeping, it will simultaneously remove a significant barrier from providing the best possible quality of life for patients and providers alike.

By Devin Morrissey

About the author

Devin prides himself on being a jack of all trades; his career trajectory is more a zig zag than an obvious trend, just the way he likes it. He pops up across the Pacific Northwest, though never in one place for long. You can follow him more reliably on Twitter.

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