Last week I had the honor of kicking off the third annual Distributed Health conference in Nashville, which brought together leaders in healthcare as well as blockchain innovators from across the nation. All were united by the shared belief that blockchain has transformative potential for health and healthcare, with changes already underway.
Blockchain is more than a technology that has enabled the much-hyped Bitcoin. It is a transactional ledger that records the movement of anything of value—currency, records, contracts, supplies—between parties. It is unique because it is a distributed ledger, which means multiple parties can hold copies of the ledger that are continuously synched, taking out inefficiencies in the transaction process. And, most importantly, it is highly secure and generally cannot be changed without the agreement of all parties to the ledger. The Economist magazine has called blockchain “a machine for creating trust,” allowing “people who have no particular confidence in each other [to] collaborate without having to go through a neutral central authority.”
I am particularly excited about the potential that blockchain has for the healthcare industry. It will give us a fresh approach to sharing data, including breaking down silos with electronic medical records, simplifying revenue cycle reconciliation and pharmaceutical supply chains, aiding researchers in drug development by making patient data more accessible and secure, synching data from health trackers and wearables into a consumer’s health record, and much more.
This year’s Distributed Health event was the third focused on blockchain and it’s clear the industry has evolved quickly. “If you think about 2016, it was all about community building,” John Bass, CEO of Nashville-based blockchain solutions firm Hashed Health said. “2017 was a lot of enterprise work, a lot of conversations with big insurance companies, big pharma companies … about how enterprises could get involved. Now, in 2018, we’ve seen this shift. … The shift that I’ve noticed is that the conversations are much more mature, the audience is much more mature, the level of thought, the practicality … is much more advanced and much more mature than what we’ve seen in the past.”
I was looking for real world evidence of a maturing industry—and I found it.
It was evident from payer participation and an overall focus on practical solutions and collaboration between industry players, and further emphasized by the innovative private sector startups putting blockchain to use.
“Healthcare is ready to adopt blockchain [technology] if you can demonstrate clear ROI,” said Solve.Care CEO Pradeep Goel. “This is not an issue of when blockchain will start working in healthcare. It is starting to work. … Once you have the right framework in place, then the use cases will flood in and that is what we are experiencing.”
We saw and heard many examples of projects in the works:
- The Department of Health and Human Services is actively working on blockchain acquisition, a process the department believes will streamline its buying power.
- Five health care organizations—Humana, MultiPlan, Quest Diagnostics, and UnitedHealth Group’s Optum and UnitedHealthcare—have launched a pilot program applying blockchain technology to improve data quality and reduce administrative costs associated with changes to health care provider demographic data, a critical, complex and difficult issue facing organizations across the health care system.
- Change Healthcare and TIBCO Software announced a collaboration to build the first smart contract system for healthcare, using the Change Healthcare Intelligent Healthcare Network blockchain technology and TIBCO’s smart contract developer project, Project Dovetail. The platform will aim to enable health plans and their financial partners to easily develop and deploy smart contract-based processes that automate events across the healthcare transaction processing lifecycle.
- Hu-manity.co is using IBM’s Blockchain Platformas the foundational technology for its global consent ledger to help enable individuals to claim property rights to their personal data. Hu-manity.co will allow people to control and manage consent, authorization and commercial use of their personal information via a permissioned blockchain-based data marketplace supporting millions of users.
- Medblox, a Riverside, Iowa, startup, hopes to decentralize medical record storage and give more control to the patients using blockchain technology to link, encrypt and protect records, similar to how it is used for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
- ScalaMed, an Australian company, allows patients to receive prescriptions directly from their clinician to their mobile phones. The ScalaMed technology creates a patent-protected method to encrypting an individual’s prescription data. It’s then transported to ScalaMed’s e-prescription blockchain service through secure APIs, published to the blockchain and made available to the patient immediately via an app.
This list really only scratches the surface. Blockchain is definitely and rapidly moving toward production in real-world healthcare settings. In fact, it’s projected to be a $2 trillion industry.
But the road there still isn’t perfectly clear.
“I think the 3-5 year question is impossible to answer when it comes to this,” Kristen Johns, a transactional patent attorney said during a panel. “If you asked most of us three years ago what blockchain was, we would have looked at you like you were crazy.”
But that doesn’t mean anyone is holding back in charting that path. Technology is going to change care as we know it: moving the locus of care into the community, into the home-setting, meeting the patient where they are. I left the event even more excited about how blockchain and other innovative technologies can do that.