bench to bedside

Decentralised databases hold the key to one day revolutionising medical records, but the healthcare industry is preventing this happening a lot sooner than it needs to.

According to Technology Review, technologists and health-care professionals consider blockchain technology to be a secure way to streamline the sharing of medical records in a secure way, protect sensitive data from hackers, and give patients more control over their information. But before this is possible, a new technical infrastructure, a customer built “healthcare blockchain” must be considered.

Emily Vaughn, head of accounts at Gem, a start-up that helps companies adopt blockchain technology, believes this is not the only thing that needs to be done. “There may be specific rules we want to bake into the protocol to make it better for healthcare,” she said. It is essential that the system facilitate the exchange of complex health information between patients and providers.

Although this is still being worked out, in the meantime Halamka and researchers at the MIT Media Lab have developed a prototype system called MedRec, using a private blockchain based on Ethereum. It automatically keeps track of who has permission to view and change a record of medications a person is taking. In addition, the system also solves a key issue facing anyone wants to take blockchain outside the realm of digital currency: miners.

In turn, MedRec incentivises miners to perform the same work by rewarding them with access to aggregated, anonymised data from patients’ records that can be used for epidemiological studies.

Andrew Lippman, associate director of the Media Lab and a co-creator of MedRec, suggests that the following process may not be necessary in healthcare application. He continues to explain that versions of MedRec may try to eradicate Bitcoin-style mining. The healthcare blockchain could reply on a variety of computing resources available in some hospitals to verify the exchange of information.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the potential for blockchain within the healthcare industry depends on whether hospitals, clinics and other organisations are willing to help create the technical infrastructure required. This would mean prototyping and testing key concepts, explains Vaughn.

Gem are currently in the process of working with clients to prototype a blockchain based patient identifier that could eventually be linked to hospital records, including data from other sources like employee wellness programs and wearable health monitors.