Should Healthcare and Social Services Invest in Blockchain Technology?


With the rise in technological advances linking the healthcare industry together to provide more accurate and efficient care, one significant proposal still being designed has the potential to be the most impactful technological advance of our generation. Blockchain is more than a program or mere hardware, it is a revolutionary new technical infrastructure that would streamline the sharing of medical records in a secure way, protect sensitive data from hackers through a virtually incorruptible cryptographic database, and give patients more control over their information.

Like bitcoin, blockchain would create an electronic ledger for each patient that would follow this patient as they visit their various providers and contain a running record of pertinent data entered by each of these providers. This ledger of data would be available to all providers working to provide care for the patient, from their primary care provider to their insurer, urgent care clinics, and acute care hospitals. Also, like bitcoin, this ledger is encrypted and secure.

Most data in healthcare exists in silos of different enterprise applications within individual organizations. While blockchain technology does not immediately eliminate decades-old problems of interoperability across healthcare to disappear, it does contain great potential to share data across networks of healthcare organizations to both improve quality of care and reduce costs. Blockchain is designed to expand upon existing types of data networking already in place, from drug supply chains and provider credentialing networks to health information exchanges and more.

As blockchain is still an emerging technology, its potential success rests on whether hospitals, clinics, and other organizations are willing to help create and maintain the technical infrastructure it will require. Prototyping and testing fundamental concepts in newly created infrastructure will be keys for participation. One recent innovation by Gem helps participants build a global, blockchain based patient identifier that could link hospital records to additional sources such as employee wellness programs and even wearable health monitors.

Participation in innovative models requires exploring newly charted territory, an area healthcare providers may be reluctant to enter. Blockchain remains an emerging technology both fraught with unanticipated challenges and the promise of unrealized potential in healthcare. Proponents of blockchain technology are hoping their early results and areas of potential success will help convince more providers of the technology’s potential for revolutionary success. One such field where they believe blockchain can have a significant impact is on that of homelessness.

Austin, Texas is actively exploring how they can use a blockchain database to keep track of identity and other records for more than 7,000 homeless people living in the city. Together with Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, they are hoping to coordinate approximately 60 organizations, such as city departments and nonprofit groups, as they provide services for the homeless population. The first stage of their efforts will determine what data points to include in the profiles of those homeless who opt-in, and what service providers likewise are willing to use blockchain ledgers. Next, they will focus on testing biometric systems that can verify an individual’s identity without a physical ID, which are often difficult to obtain for the homeless.

Other organizations are hoping to use blockchain in their efforts to provide identities to marginalized populations who often lack any sort of a cohesive medical record. Coca-Cola and the State Department announced an initiative in March to create a secure registry of workers designed to help combat the use of forced labor in the supply chain. New York City has partnered with Blockchain for Change to provide low-income individuals phones preloaded with an app that allows users to create a digital profile and interact with service providers. As these interactions occur, they are logged on the users’ blockchain ledgers to allow providers to see what services have already been provided and what their outcomes were.

Healthcare organizations are choosing to promote participation as well, including Humana, UnitedHealthcare, and Optum. Together, they are introducing pilot programs utilizing blockchain technology in improving the accuracy of provider organization demographic data. Their efforts are fueled by reports indicating that $2.1 billion in annual administrative costs by provider organizations can be avoided through the streamlining and sharing of patient data. Beyond the financial benefits, the companies are also hoping that better health decisions will result as they improve interoperability and mitigate many of its problems.

Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) such as Arizona Care Network are also piloting programs that integrate blockchain technology into their processes. David Hanekom, CEO of Arizona Care Network (ACN), said “we want to help patients get the information and care they need more quickly and ease the considerable administrative burden on our providers.” ACN is integrating a technology platform developed by Solve.Care with the promise that it will improve clinical outcomes, relieve administrative burdens, and reduce waste in spending.

At the heart of their technology, Solve.Care’s blockchain system uses a decentralized approach that delivers relevant information to the right party at the moment it is needed. Once deployed, their platform will serve as the foundation for applications used by ACN’s network of 5,500 physicians and 250,000 patients. These physicians and patients can use personal devices to create, store, and share administrative and financial records.

While the positive impacts of Blockchain have the potential to solve many current problems, such as interoperability and other points, many are quick to remind that it is not a quick fix. Many do believe, however, that its potential over the coming decade is immense, and could revolutionize the efficiency of networking in the healthcare field between patients and their various providers. Once blockchain proves its value to healthcare in the near term, it can lay the groundwork for radical new long-term healthcare innovations.

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