Old ways of thinking won’t work for Blockchain, experts say

If the technology is going to fix healthcare’s interoperability and security problems, policymakers, IT pros and executives need fresh perspectives.
By Mike Miliard
02:23 PM
Blockchain in healthcare

Though Blockchain has only become part of the healthcare conversation in the past 24 months, it has already captivated the field.

The distributed digital ledger — seen as a silver bullet to information security and interoperability challenges — currently sits atop Gartner’s famed Hype Cycle, just about to crest the perilous Peak of Inflated Expectations and plummet into the Trough of Disillusionment.

But the hype around blockchain isn’t entirely unwarranted.

[Also: Blockchain faces tough roadblocks in healthcare]

Gartner said that real-world deployments of the technology currently comprise just 1 percent of its total potential audience, and any widespread transformational use is still five or even 10 years away.

Confusion persists

Analysts project that if blockchain finds a foothold in healthcare and other industries, its potential to radically transform whole sectors of the economy could have profound implications "for society, governments and enterprises, for which there are no clear answers today."

Whether blockchain lives up to the hype in healthcare, there are big hurdles to clear – technology, regulation, workflow and more – if it's to realize that bold promise.

"It is fair to say that industry is still confused to a degree about the potential for blockchain," said David Schatsky, managing director with Deloitte. "But more than a quarter of surveyed knowledgeable execs say their companies view blockchain as a critical, top-five priority."

[Also: How does blockchain actually work for healthcare?]

Yet blockchain has applications across every industry, according to Joe Guagliardo, chair of the Blockchain Technology Group at law firm Pepper Hamilton.

"We're hearing that blockchain is going to revolutionize the way we interact with and store data,” Guagliardo said. “But it's not going to happen tomorrow.”

Erasing old schools of thought

Knowing that it will likely take years before blockchain is entrenched in healthcare, experts say IT leaders, hospital administrators, security professionals and policymakers must stop preserving data silos and keeping information proprietary for competitive reasons and, instead, begin thinking beyond their own organizations.

“Let's find smaller problems we can solve as a starting point,” Guagliardo said. "Smaller projects that don't have the regulatory hurdles and then take baby steps that don't require breaking down all the walls.”

Guagliardo pointed, for instance, to Healthcoin, which bills itself as the first blockchain-enabled platform for diabetes prevention. It aims to help insurers and employers incentivize consumers to manage lifestyle changes using blockchain technology to track biomarkers – actual lab work, rather than just step counters from a mobile app – to generate tokenized "prevention certificates" that patients can cash in for rewards.

As for those hospitals and health systems looking to get their feet wet with provider-focused clinical uses of blockchain, Guagliardo's advice is to open conversations with potential partners.

“The key -- and more so than with most new technologies -- is not so much standards-setting but making sure that all the major players are working together to look for a solution that would work for everyone involved," he added.

Because blockchain can also grant more control to patients over their own data, hospitals will need to embrace that culture shift and its implications for privacy such that they become comfortable with that responsibility. 

Certainly, challenging inertia and changing old ways of thinking will be among the biggest obstacles on the road to more widespread adoption of blockchain.

Prashant Natarajan, director of healthcare solutions at Oracle, said it's a hurdle worth trying to clear.

"A lot of the conversations today are happening from a silo-within-an-enterprise perspective: 'What can providers use blockchain for?'" Natarajan said. "I would like to change that conversation to: How can we use blockchain to benefit the patient?"

Twitter: @MikeMiliardHITN