When it comes to thinking about how cryptocurrencies can change the world for the better, what do you think of? Their decentralized nature perhaps, and the fact that as a financial asset it will always be out of the reach of the fat cat banks. Or maybe how convenient they are, and how transactions are done digitally and quickly. Not many will probably think of healthcare, and the maintenance of your day-to-day health, but it is in fact another field in which cryptocurrencies, and more specifically its underlying technology, blockchain, have huge potential.
Blockchain Technology in the Medical Industry
Everyone with more than a passing interest in cryptocurrencies will surely know that the technology behind them is known as blockchain. In layman’s terms, it is a distributed ledger that cannot be changed once transactions are verified on it. This was first used with the creation of Bitcoin in early 2009, but now the technology has spread to many walks of life, including healthcare. Let’s take a look at how blockchain is helping to alleviate some common problems the health industry encounters:
Electronic Health Records
Administrative inefficiency has long caused issues such as patients having to go and forth between medical providers between for their records, or even human error causing paper records for patients to be lost. Electronic health records (EHRs), which was introduced as an attempt to combat some of the problems the healthcare industry once encountered, is not a new thing and they have been in widespread use around the world since the 1990s, but they have also been long fraught with problems. However, with the arrival of blockchain technology, there could potentially be solutions available.
Problem: Sensitive medical data of patients has been the target of hacking from EHRs and used to steal or impersonate identities, or sold on to third parties.
Solution: Through advanced cryptography, blockchain can put an end to this. Records can be added to a blockchain, becoming longer over time, and when new ones are added, a consensus is needed, thus making it very difficult to break, and hence be hacked into. Health Wizz is one company that is using blockchain to give patients complete control of their medical data. A decentralized mobile platform, it allows patients to manage their health information and sell to third parties if they wish, in return for tokens.
Problem: There have also been shortcomings in EHRs in terms of doctors accessing patient information that comes from another institution. This is because in some countries, different manufacturers often provide different EHR software for different institutions, and there isn’t interoperability between them. Although a single, comprehensive system would be beneficial to doctors and patients, this would reduce the ability for the companies to charge extortionate fees. Attempts have been made to bring together EHRs under one system in many countries, but this has proven often to be a doomed process. In the UK, an attempt to create a linked patient data system for the whole of the National Health Service was abandoned in 2011, costing nearly £10bn.
Solution: Blockchain could allow for a singular patient-owned EHR system, where their information is transmitted safely and securely to different financial institutions, and be accessed as soon as new data is added to it. Although it should be remembered that blockchain won’t replace the EHR itself - it has seven transactions a second, compared to an EHR which can have up to 12,000, it will be able to act as an extra layer for additional functions, and prove that records are complete and unmodified, and record patient consent when it comes to data sharing.
Costs and Safety
With ageing and rising populations, costs for healthcare are on the rise all over the world. In the U.S, expenditure for healthcare as a percent of its GDP has been hovering at between the 17% and 18% mark for a decade - compared to just 5% in 1960. So, clearly sensible, long-term cost-cutting solutions are badly needed. Could blockchain be one of these? There’s mounting information suggesting so. BIS Research in 2018 estimated that the adoption of the technology could save the healthcare industry up to $100 - 150 billion a year worldwide by 2025 in “data breach-related costs, IT costs, operations costs, support function costs and personnel costs, and through a reduction in frauds and counterfeit products”.
Among the most prominent beneficiaries through the adoption of blockchain according to the research will be pharmaceutical companies, who lose an estimated $200 million annually because of counterfeit drugs. Not only this, deaths from counterfeit drugs is a huge problem worldwide, especially in developing countries. The World Health Organization estimated in 2017 that they cause tens of thousands of deaths a year there. By having complete transparency on the blockchain, it will be possible to trace the drugs to the point of origin, helping to banish falsified medication, making it safer for patients and saving up to $43million a year for pharma companies. Farma Trust is one such company that is enabling this service, preventing counterfeit drugs from entering the supply chain through the usage of blockchain technology.
In the world of crypto, smart contracts are mostly associated with Ethereum and its cryptocurrency, Ether. They are used with Bitcoin but only for financial transactions. But for Ethereum they can be used for a variety of different measures through the creations of ‘tokens’ on the blockchain. One way they have the potential to be used is in hospital and patient directories. If a medical professional spots a mistake in their records, with smart contract technology they will be able to make a correction, which will then accepted or rejected as a smart contract. It also has the potential to revolutionize the complicated prescription drug supply market in the US by cutting out middlemen, thus considerably cutting costs for consumers.
So while the benefits of blockchain technology in healthcare are quite well documented, what about cryptocurrencies themselves? Well, actually there are some out there which have been developed specifically for health-related reasons, and offer health-related incentives. Here are three of the most popular:
- Sweatcoin tracks your steps throughout the day, and the more you do, the more points you gain. These can be converted into Sweatcoins, which can be used to purchase goods and services such as yoga classes and iPhones.
- Sobercoin labels itself as the ‘currency of recovery’ and helps people who are struggling with addiction problems get back on track. People can get points through using the app and referring others, and can trade them for the Sobercoin currency, which can be used to get help in their recovery.
- Clinicoin enables users to collect tokens as rewards for participating in exercise and healthy activities, and research.
As is the case with other fields, the long-term viability of blockchain and its integration into the healthcare industry are interdependent on each other. As more become aware of the potential of its long-term viability, it will become integrated, and vice-versa. The signs are clearly there however that there is long-term viability. Although still in their early stages, projects are well underway all over the globe, and research suggests that the blockchain in healthcare will grow to be worth over $5.6 billion by 2025.
Additionally, according to findings from the 2019 Global Blockchain Survey from Deloitte, established healthcare organizations are clearly seeing the huge potential in blockchain and are investing heavily, with 63% of healthcare organization respondents saying they are planning to invest over $1million over the next calendar year. While barriers remain in place, such as uncertainty over the ROI of the new technology, and complications over its implementation, its versatility and potential to bring about new levels of efficiency all point towards to a bright future for blockchain in the healthcare industry. As for health-related cryptocurrencies, the future is more unclear. The truth is that the long-term viability of all but the major cryptocurrencies is very much in the air. However, no-one can doubt their good intention.
Written by Rick O'Neill