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Blockchain. A day doesn’t seem to go by without seeing articles and discussions about the technology

Why Is the Healthcare Industry Abuzz About Blockchain?

Blockchain. A day doesn't seem to go by without seeing articles and discussions about the technology. According to PwC executive Seamus Cushley, approximately $1.4B has been invested in blockchain just last year. In Gartner's recent hype cycle for emerging technologies, blockchain is approaching the peak. It is considered by Gartner as one of the ‘Key platform-enabling technologies to track.' While there is a lot of ‘hype vs reality' discussions going on, there is no arguing that blockchain is being taken very seriously across industries and cannot be ignored.

A large percentage of the discussion does seem to focus in the financial services industry. This is not surprising given blockchain's historic legacy (I know, a disruptive technology already has a legacy) with Bitcoin and crypto currencies. In my article, last year, Blockchain - Its So Much More Than Bitcoin, I discussed that while given that legacy, there are so many other potential areas and use cases outside that arena. Yes, the financial services industry is investing heavily in research on blockchain, as it could have fundamental impact on how they do business. Even given that, the potential use cases for the technology outside that industry are what I find much more interesting. One vertical that is particularly intriguing is healthcare.

The business challenge in the healthcare industry
The healthcare industry has been full of disruptions in the last decade. Ranging from the double digit explosive growth of medical devices in the world of the Internet of Things, to the incredible advances in machine learning that could reshape diagnostic medicine. The medical devices are generating huge volumes of data about patients, and the machine learning technologies are the consumers of that data. This highlights a common focus for these disruptive technologies, and one of the industry's biggest challenges, patient data. Or put another way, the proverbial holy grail of the medical industry, the elusive Electronic Health Record (EHR).

EHRs have been a topic of conversation and goal in the healthcare industry for over a decade. Conceptually it sounds simple enough. A consolidated medical history of a patient that ‘may include all of the key administrative clinical data relevant to that persons care under a particular provider, including demographics, progress notes, problems, medications, vital signs, past medical history, immunizations, laboratory data and radiology reports.' (Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services). The challenge is this information comes from a variety of sources, providers, laboratories, hospitals each with their own patient records systems. Add to that complexity, ownership, HIPPA regulations on access control and sharing of the information, trust between systems, and the associated costs of storage and replication of potentially huge volumes of data and you begin to appreciate why 10 years later, the industry is still struggling with EHR.

This has happened before, it will happen again
The failure to achieve the goal laid out 10 years ago for EHRs is not for want of trying. There have been some fairly large and high profile attempts

Blockchain to the rescue?
Blockchain has become a big topic of conversation as the potential ecosystem that could help achieve the goals of EHRs. Conceptually, think of a ledger of your health care information and treatments. A fully traceable chain of information and activities that you as a patient have access to and control over who has access to that information. A chain that cannot be modified or tampered with. This is the kind of use case scenario that is being seriously looked at in the industry.

We have miles to go, and promises to keep
While there is a lot of activity and buzz around blockchain and its potential in the healthcare industry, it is far from a certainty that blockchain will be the savior that many hope for to solve their challenges. David Chou, CIO at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas, wrote a recent blog (6 Challenges to Healthcare Adoption of Blockchain) that highlights the challenges facing the use of blockchain in the healthcare industry. Key among the challenges are a cultural shift (including an innate resistance to sharing of information in the industry) and the technology challenges of all the distributed information across disparate systems.

Are we there yet? No. Using blockchain to help solve some of the challenges in the healthcare industry still has a long way to go to being a viable, productive solution. Even so, there is a lot of potential and bears watching as it progresses. As technologists, we always have a responsibility to help business and industry solve their business challenges, identifying the tools that can help achieve those goals. We should never fall victim to ‘shiny toy' syndrome. Blockchain is a tool in the toolbox. I for one am happy to have it available, and look forward to seeing the benefits it can bring to solving business problems and challenges.

About Ed Featherston
Ed Featherston is VP, Principal Architect at Cloud Technology Partners. He brings 35 years of technology experience in designing, building, and implementing large complex solutions. He has significant expertise in systems integration, Internet/intranet, and cloud technologies. He has delivered projects in various industries, including financial services, pharmacy, government and retail.

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