Blockchain has become one of the most hyped technologies in healthcare over recent years, with advocates touting its potential to solve longstanding industry challenges including data siloes, interoperability, security and transparency. However, separating hype from reality remains difficult for healthcare leaders given the nascent state of blockchain adoption.
While skepticism is healthy, dismissing blockchain risks overlooking its genuine potential benefits. In truth, the technology is already being applied to add value across healthcare in both limited trial deployments and widescale implementations touching millions of patients.
Here we examine eight real-world examples that demonstrate blockchain moving beyond the theoretical to drive meaningful impacts today across a spectrum of healthcare settings:
1. Secure Health Record Sharing
Maintaining patients’ longitudinal health records in fragmented siloes across providers seriously impedes coordinated care. But sharing sensitive medical data raises privacy and security concerns that make many healthcare organizations reluctant to open access.
Blockchain’s encrypted, tamper-proof ledger architecture offers a novel approach to simultaneously enable trust and control around health data exchange. By granting patients ownership of their data using private keys, while offering selective access to authorized medical personnel, blockchain facilitates sharing without compromising security.
One company applying this model is Medicalchain, which launched a blockchain-based EHR system allowing patients to approve doctor access to consolidated medical records across providers. The system also enables telemedicine and e-prescription tied to verified identities, overcoming security roadblocks to virtual care.
Such controlled yet seamless health record interoperability promises to enhance care quality, reduce duplication, and enrich medical research with expansive patient datasets. As patients engage more actively in managing and sharing their data, blockchain could catalyze the shift towards patient-centered care models.
2. Clinical Trials and Medical Research
Performing rigorous clinical trials essential for advancing medical knowledge raises immense logistical challenges tracking, auditing and ethically reporting research activities across stakeholders. Blockchain’s innate security, transparency and auditability is proving uniquely valuable streamlining clinical operations.
The UK NHS National Institute for Health Research is currently using blockchain technology developed by Spiritus to manage aspects of a pediatric leukemia trial encompassing over 200 researchers across 20 global sites. The system seamlessly tracks patient enrollment, sample tracking, research ethics oversight and more.
Such capabilities to immutably record every trial activity on blockchain led the CEO of contract research organization IQVIA to predict the technology will become a “central enabler” of clinical research within just a few years. By both logging and time-stamping data, blockchain enhances reliability of medical evidence and conclusions.
Pharmaceutical firms and research sponsors are also harnessing blockchain to improve transparency and reporting of drug trials to build public trust following past ethical breaches. Blockchain’s capacity to guarantee data integrity without requiring complete openness preserves commercial confidentiality.
3. Counterfeit Drug Prevention
Lethal counterfeit medicines represent a $200 billion annual problem resulting in over 1 million fatalities worldwide according to WHO estimates. Because pharmaceutical supply chains span fragmented systems crossing borders, tracing and authenticating products remains incredibly difficult.
Blockchain’s capacity to create tamper-proof, shared repositories of supply chain events and product identifiers makes it well suited to address pharmaceutical fraud. If a drug is counterfeited, blockchain entries can pinpoint exactly when and where it entered the system.
This capability has seen governments, NGOs and companies begin utilizing blockchain to track high-risk drugs across international supply routes. Indian vaccine maker Serum Institute and pharma major Pfizer are among the firms trialing blockchain to prevent counterfeit infiltration and enable authentication of legitimate drugs at point of use.
Such transparency provides assurance for health providers and patients who can instantly verify medicines are genuine. As blockchain supply chain tracking becomes the norm globally, the technology promises to put counterfeiters permanently out of business.
4. Provider Data Management
Maintaining accurate directories of facilities, physicians, formularies and medical services is an endless challenge for payers and delivery networks given constant changes. Outdated provider data directly undermines clinical care, referrals, reimbursements and directory services harming patients, doctors and insurers.
Blockchain offers a real-time shared single source of truth around provider identity and credentials that reduces costs of data mismatches and delays. One company moving this application into production is Avaneer Health, which developed an enterprise blockchain network for payers and hospitals to sync and validate provider data.
Humana is among the major insurers piloting Avaneer’s platform to enhance directory accuracy and automate trust-based referrals between network providers. The system promises to minimize communication efforts, confusion and errors stemming from fragmented provider data management across today’s complex healthcare ecosystems.
By shifting provider data responsibility from multiple parties to a shared immutable ledger, blockchain can significantly smooth operations and experiences for clinicians and administrators. Rapid data sharing also aids dynamic risk assessment and patient triage.
5. Health Insurance Claims Adjudication
Processing medical insurance claims involves extensive cumbersome paperwork, communications and payment steps between patients, providers and payers. This drives up administrative costs burdening the US healthcare system with $265 billion annually.
Blockchain is demonstrating potential to slash the complexity of claims management by establishing a transparent workflow between parties underpinned by smart contracts. Rules encoded in software automate payment handling linking medical codes to policies upon verification.
Health chain startup PokitDok is commercializing such a solution using blockchain to expedite claims processing and eliminate time-consuming disputes. The cloud-based platform reduces settlement from months to minutes while lowering costs for payers and friction for patients and providers.
By the end of 2022, PokitDok aims to process $72 billion in annual healthcare transactions representing 4-5% of the US healthcare claims market. Other innovators like ClaimVu are introducing similar blockchain platforms specializing in different aspects of claims management from pre-authorizations to billing.
As blockchain solutions move into the healthcare billing mainstream, administrators can look forward to radically streamlining one of the industry’s most frustratingly complex and delay-prone workflows.
6. Hospital Supply Chain Optimization
Managing hospital inventories and medical supplies is riddled with inefficiencies as materials move through various facilities, logistics providers and regulatory agencies. This fragmentation generates waste, unnecessary costs and risks to patient safety.
One healthcare system harnessing blockchain to address supply chain issues is Mayo Clinic, which developed an application called MediLedger Network for tracking pharmaceutical shipments between companies. By creating a shared tamper-proof audit trail across multiple supply chain entities, blockchain enhances transparency, provenance assurance and efficiency.
Singapore healthcare group Allianz also created a blockchain-based supply chain platform connecting manufacturers, distributors, clinics and pharmacies. Automating order-to-payment processes reduced administrative work by 80% while improving stock optimization, contract compliance and recall management.
As blockchain supply chain platforms extend across healthcare, providers can look forward to benefits including cost savings from waste reduction, better demand forecasting through data analytics, and faster recall response times improving patient safety.
7. Health Data Marketplaces
Fragmented siloed data remains one of healthcare’s most persistent problems impeding discovery and delivery. At the same time, data consolidation risks compromising patient privacy. Blockchain offers a framework to unlock data’s value by connecting disparate sets while keeping control with data owners.
Hu-manity.co, an organization helping individuals assert data rights, launched a blockchain-based health data marketplace allowing users to share various records including medical, fitness and insurance data with researchers, innovators and companies in return for compensation. All data exchanges are auditable via blockchain.
Such marketplaces promise to enrich medical insights and fuel innovation by allowing patients to securely monetize their data on their terms. Pharmaceutical firms also gain faster access to diverse health data for drug development insights. Management of permissions stays with data providers rather than central holders.
As healthcare becomes more consumer-driven, blockchain data marketplaces offer a mechanism granting patients more autonomy over their medical information while opening new innovation pathways.
8. COVID-19 Passports and Certificates
The COVID-19 pandemic saw governments urgently explore digital solutions to verify health status as economies reopened. Blockchain fast emerged as a technology well suited to enable tamper-proof COVID certificates given its ability to securely record test results and vaccine proofs verified by issuers like laboratories or health authorities.
The EU rolled out a Digital COVID Certificate across its 27 member states anchored on a blockchain shared across participating countries. The system allows citizens to access QR codes demonstrating their vaccination status to cross borders and gain entry without quarantines.
IBM supported the development of similar health pass systems in US states including New York, Hawaii and California. Using their platform, people can download a digital wallet app to safely store verifiable vaccine credentials issued after vaccination.
Such blockchain-enabled ‘health passports’ offer promise beyond COVID for managing permissions and enabling services based on verified health records. Providers are also harnessing the model for maintaining internal vaccination records. While requiring thoughtful policies, blockchain offers technological foundations.
The Bottom Line
While still maturing, these examples indicate blockchain’s huge potential for adding unique value across healthcare use cases demanding information transparency, accuracy, security and stakeholder collaboration. Given the technology’s relative immaturity however, experts caution carefully assessing solutions for real-world viability before fully buying into the blockchain hype.
“Beyond the hype, blockchain has genuine utility in healthcare,” summarizes McKinsey in a report on the technology. “But its ultimate value depends on matching applications to specific problems and employing it in conjunction with other emerging technologies including IoT and artificial intelligence.”
This means embracing a pragmatic approach focused on solving priority challenges rather than blockchain for its own sake. It also requires integrating blockchain seamlessly into workflows and legacy systems which remains challenging. Patience is likewise needed allowing the technology to evolve safely before being applied in clinical settings.
However those dismissing blockchain as largely irrelevant risk losing ground to fast-following competitors as the technology proliferates. By judiciously identifying high-impact applications, investing in skills and exploring potential through limited-scope trials, healthcare organizations can harness blockchain progress to their advantage.
“The technology appears genuinely poised to drive far-reaching change across healthcare,” remarks PwC health industries leader Benjamine Falk. “Astute organizations are already placing their strategic bets and making the moves today to unlock that value and gain competitive edge.”