How Blockchain Health Care Will Transform Small Practices in the Future

By: on October 24, 2018

Would you believe that blockchain—a technology mostly linked with cryptocurrencies—is expected to transform health care? It’s true, and there are advancements being made that will truly change the way health care is delivered.

The fact is, the increasing demand for integrated patient care delivery and focus on end-to-end patient health management requires a tamper-proof technology ecosystem. And, physicians would prefer not to deal with intermediaries such as insurance company managers or pharmacy benefits managers (PBMs).

If you want to deliver on these demands, you’ll need interoperability of EHR systems, while dealing with data theft issues during data sharing.

Blockchain is the technology small practices will turn to in order to deliver on patient demand for integrated patient care delivery and end-to-end health management.

According to one report, the global blockchain for health care market was around $34.5 million in 2017 and is forecast to rise to $1.4 billion by 2024. The North American region, led by the U.S., represents the most developed market for blockchain in health care and is estimated to see rapid growth in the near future.

Here are a couple of predictions on how blockchain will impact health care in the coming years:

  • Gartner predicts that by 2020, about 20 percent of health care providers will test use cases for blockchain in their health care setups (full content available to Gartner clients).

In this article, we’ll review the significance of blockchain in small health care settings and all the existing health care challenges it could help to solve in the near future. We’ll also discuss the potential uses of blockchain that small practices, such as yours, will find beneficial.

What Is Blockchain, And Why Do Physicians Need to Know About It?

Most people know about blockchain only in the context of cryptocurrencies (such as bitcoin) and not its other uses. In reality, blockchain is much more than just a payment mechanism. Let’s look at its definition and application.

Blockchain is a technology that creates distributable and permanent data records that are shared and exchanged between different stakeholders (such as physicians, medical practices, pharmacies and insurance companies) across a distributed, networked system. The data records create a digital transaction ledger that includes a growing list of records or transactions called “blocks.”

Every block is part of a chain that ensures the block’s validity. This technology secures the data when it’s shared because blockchain doesn’t allow data to be recognized or changed until it reaches the intended recipient.

How does blockchain works 
How a blockchain works (Source)

Blockchain has the potential to impact almost all industries. In most industries, it will remove intermediaries and make processes more efficient, but in health care, its impact is much larger. For instance, it’ll make it easier to analyze patient data and reduce the risk of distributing counterfeit drugs, which will have a big positive impact.

To be clear, blockchain isn’t an alternative technology that will replace your EHR; it will support your EHR and other connected systems (used by pharmacies and insurance companies) to add transparency to the process of accessing and updating patient data, in real time.

In addition, as with any new and cutting edge technology, blockchain’s practical use in health care precedes HIPAA regulations or any formal implementation guidance in this realm. Since HIPAA has strict security and privacy standards regarding the use of protected health information (PHI), HIPPA could pose challenges to the use of blockchain in future.

Setting the regulatory challenges aside for now, let’s discuss what other challenges blockchain can solve for you.

Challenges Blockchain Will Solve for Small Medical Practices

Let’s discuss, in detail, how blockchain can transform the working of small medical practices and solve the challenges they face everyday:

1. Lack of real-time access to patient data

Access to real-time updated data enhances patient care. But the records stored in EHRs aren’t always the most up-to-date, as all the stakeholders (such as physicians, pharmacies and insurance companies) involved in the treatment process usually add/update data at their end and then share it with all other stakeholders, which takes time.

However, with blockchain you don’t need to share data with all stakeholders after every update you make, as the updated data is automatically reflected in everyone’s system in real time.

The distributed ledger system in blockchain technology facilitates secure and real-time access to patient health data in EHRs and other connected systems used by other third parties such as pharmacies and insurance companies.

With access to real-time updated data, physicians can do their work, such as charting, e-prescribing or order entry, accurately in real time. This saves tons of time, which they can dedicate to interacting with and treating patients, instead of waiting to receive updated data from all stakeholders.

2. Greater data security

Another common challenge for small practices is data loss during transfer. In 2017, there were 477 health care data breaches in the U.S. that affected more than 5.5 million patient records. Securing patient data isn’t just a matter of missing out on meaningful use incentives; your entire reputation is at stake.

Blockchain can solve this problem, as it doesn’t involve any third parties for fetching or transferring patient data from one location to another. Whenever a blockchain member or stakeholder makes an update to the data, all other members are notified. This makes it almost impossible for any member to fetch or update any data without the knowledge of other members.

Thus, blockchain ensures the security and accuracy of all digital data transactions, keeping patient identities secure at all times.

3. Fragmented data storage to prevent hacking

The file transfer protocol (FTP) server that stores all the patient health data from EHRs and other platforms is often targeted by hackers. When all your data is stored in a single server, all of it will be easily compromised in the event of a hack.

But it’s different with blockchain, where patient data is stored and shared across different networks and nodes. This eliminates the risk of a single server being hacked, or prone to malfunction.

Potential Uses Of Blockchain for Small Practices

As we’ve seen, blockchain technology aims to solve a lot of medical practices’ existing challenges related to accessing real-time data and data security. Now let’s look at some potential uses of blockchain that can radically transform health care:

1. Real-time patient data analytics

We discussed earlier how blockchain could improve patient data storage, access and sharing, thus leading to more transparency among stakeholders. Blockchain’s virtual database would share all data updates with all stakeholders in real time, thus, ensuring real-time analysis of patient data by physicians, using EHRs, for speedy diagnoses.

In addition, blockchain will make it easier to identify patients’ health care trends and gain insights with the help of real-time patient data analysis. It gives all stakeholders access to real-time data and allows them to provide their inputs on overall trends and insights. These peer insights will help physicians perform better data analysis more quickly.

2. Faster insurance claims processing and checking

In health care, it’s critical to accurately calculate insurance claims and identify fraudulent claims.

Practices could use a smart contract as evidence of the patient’s visit to the clinic. This transaction can be uploaded to a blockchain that’s accessible to all stakeholders (not just practices, pharmacies and insurance companies, but banks and government regulators as well) involved in the patient’s health care plan.

The insurance company could easily identify the patient’s completed transaction and reimburse the claim amount accordingly. This streamlines the claims process because the patient’s clinic visits are easily accessible and verifiable on the blockchain.

In addition, medical practices can connect with insurance providers any time to check a patient’s health insurance coverage or verify the patient’s demographic information.

3. Better and faster decision-making

Blockchain acts as a common digital database that allows all members/stakeholders to update patient data almost instantly, thus ensuring greater trust in the data as it’s updated in real time.

This trust in the authenticity of patient data results in better and quicker data-driven decision-making (without much human intuition or observation), as physicians don’t have to wait for the data to be updated by everyone (such as physicians, medical practices, pharmacies and insurance companies). Blockchain also eliminates the chances of data errors as there’s a clear trail of any update.

Conclusion and Next Steps

The future of blockchain in health care should be considered inevitable. Many technology vendors and large health care providers are already testing how blockchain can support their future health IT needs. But it’ll still take a few years for the technology to fully mature and be widely available for use.

This gives small health care practices enough time to thoroughly identify areas in their operations that can benefit from blockchain. You must remain updated on what enterprises are doing (via news stories, forums or communities) and assess their failure/success rates.

These are just a few ideas:

  • Start thinking about your future IT infrastructure. You can start discussing future technology requirements in your medical practice with your IT team. If you’re facing issues such as lack of interoperability, patient data vulnerabilities and distribution of counterfeit drugs, then blockchain can be of great help to you without a high cost.
    For example, currently, interoperability features may be too expensive for you to integrate it with your EHR system, but blockchain can accomplish this in a less expensive way along with complete data security.
  • Read about blockchain in your free time. Start building your knowledge about blockchain technology. To gain basic knowledge of the technology, seek out sites devoted to the topic, such as Blockchain Hub or Share this knowledge base with your employees and help them learn about blockchain before you implement it in future.
  • Set up a Google Alert to remain updated. Peruse the plethora of free resources regarding blockchain on the internet. Set a Google Alert for blockchain in health care to receive the latest news or resources in your inbox. This will keep you updated on how the technology evolves every day.

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