People are living longer in the 21st Century, but what's less recognized is that, despite our increasing longevity, we're also getting sicker. According to research, the number of people over 65 afflicted with at least four medical conditions is on course to rise by 100 percent by 2035. As can be imagined, such a jump in illness is going to place an increasingly heavy burden on medical institutions and services, with the implication being that we — as a global community — need to find new, innovative ways of dealing with disease.
Fortunately, crypto is on hand to help with this emerging crisis. It won't be a panacea for the ills of our struggling health systems, but in a number of important ways, blockchains and cryptocurrencies could help the health sector meet its growing workload in the years and decades to come. By increasing the security and transparency of medical data, they could give patients greater assurance that their personal info is being protected, which in turn could increase trust in medical institutions and make people likelier to put their lives in the hands of health professionals. And by providing medical research companies with greater access to funding, they would accelerate progress in the area of drug treatment discovery, thereby saving lives and reducing sickness.
However, the application of blockchain tech in the health industry won't be an entirely seamless process, given the need for effective crypto regulation to be established first, and given the fact that most blockchains still need to overcome various technical challenges before they can serve thousands — if not millions — of patients. But once it has met such challenges, those working in the space believe it will make a radical difference.
The first and most important thing to observe about the growing use of distributed ledger technology (DLT) in health care is that it's not mainly concerned with the actual process of treatment but rather with how data arising from treatment is processed and stored.
In early November 2018, Myongji Hospital in South Korea became one of the latest institutions globally to look to DLT, after it announced that it would be working in concert with Korean IT company BICube to develop a blockchain-based data exchange system. As the press release explained, this system would be part-private and part-public, enabling patients to approve the transfer of their medical data from one health institution to another.
Other recently announced systems are set to work in much the same way, although with minor differences in each specific case. In Austria, the national government offered its financial support to Lancor Scientific, which is building a cancer-screening tool that harnesses artificial intelligence (AI) that has a 90 percent accuracy rate of detection (human pathologists achieve only 60-70 percent accuracy for cervical cancer). In addition to using AI, Lancor will also be using its own proprietary blockchain to store the data obtained from its screening tool. And as its white paper makes clear, a patient can access this data by using the platform's Medici Token, which activates the smart contracts that then release the relevant data to him or her (or to an approved third party).
According to Lancor CEO Aamir Butt, blockchain technology will be applied mostly to medical data, but this will still enable health professionals and institutions to target treatment more effectively. He told Cointelegraph:
"Blockchain technology allows for better targeting of at-risk groups for cancer screening, because the data available is better. Patients own their own healthcare data when blockchain technology is used so the data has greatly more integrity than can be achieved in other models of data handling. For example, between 5% and 20% of NHS data is not tied specifically to a patient, and in the US, healthcare data is tied to a patient-event rather than a patient."
In fact, other platforms have been launched that aim to harness blockchain's power to integrate masses of data and make information quickly accessible, doing so in a way that improves the actual process of treatment — and often more cheaply. One such platform is Skychain, which is combining DLT and AI to build a distributed network of artificial neural networks (i.e., artificial brains) that will potentially diagnose medical conditions with greater success than human practitioners. Similarly, Doc.com (also known as Docademic) provides users of its mobile app with access to doctors and medical professionals from around the world. Its CEO, Charles Nader, told Cointelegraph that its use of cryptocurrency will incentivize more potential users (patients and professionals) to engage with the platform, which will ultimately create more useful data.
“[Blockchain] certainly adds value since you have economic incentives to add more data as well as having access to information in one place. This incentive to add the data would be the cryptocurrency that interacts with the blockchain. And as more data is inputted into the blockchain, the information will be much more useful.”
Not only does blockchain provide incentives to add more data to health care systems, but it will actually incentivize people to show up to their appointments. Healthereum is another company building a blockchain-based platform that will enable patients to be treated by doctors from around the world, yet in contrast to many of its rivals, it will actually reward patients with its token for showing up to appointments — and punish them for not showing up. And as its CEO and founder, Steve Y. Chung, explains to Cointelegraph, this will go a long way in solving one of the health care industry’s biggest problems.
“No-shows afflict healthcare providers in every country. No-shows interrupt the relationship which then disrupts downstream health care. Utilizing blockchain, [we] address this very issue of no-shows via gamification of the appointment. Healthereum incentivizes adherence to appointments which then leads to better health.”
Of course, in an era when concerns over privacy and personal data are becoming increasingly prominent, the ability to generate masses of personal data might be worrying. However, Aamir Butt affirms that the cryptographic and distributed aspects of blockchain tech provide a reliable way of minimizing threats to data security:
"The use of cryptographic handshakes before data is transferred ensures that the right information is allocated to the right patient, and the right tests are performed so that the right future care can be planned and delivered. Indeed, that provides for devices to be authenticated as well. The practice of medical fraud – use of fake devices, charging patients for tests not done and more – is relevant across the world, but especially in developing countries. By authenticating devices on the blockchain, using these cryptographic handshakes, the opportunity for that fraud is shrunk dramatically."
Not only does DLT promise to improve data security and reduce the chances of medical fraud, but it could also allow for more connected national systems of medical data. As Butt explains, systems prevalent in the United Kingdom, the United States and other developed countries currently create "fragmented silos of data, which means benefits of aggregated data are hard to access, made worse through a lack of data integrity."
Fortunately, blockchain enables a new model for handling patient data. "In a distributed ledger, the database is distributed across the network, with transaction integrity maintained through cryptography," Butt says.
Research and funding
Because data is becoming so integral to the world's health systems, and because more and more of it is being created, health care is now providing one of the clearest use cases for DLT. That said, the role of blockchains in medicine isn't restricted to the better management of data, but also to funding — something that can improve outcomes in drug discovery and medical research.
In September, the California-based pharmaceutical company Verseon launched its own securities exchange, which will enable decentralized, blockchain-based trading in tokenized securities. This might seem like an odd thing for a pharma company to do, but as CEO Adityo Prakash tells Cointelegraph, it will open new possibilities for the health industry:
"Securing funding is also very important for the development of new medicines as well as other healthcare technologies. Needless to say, improvements in healthcare critically depends on new medical innovations. By using blockchain technology to conduct regulations compliant sale and trading of tokenized securities Verseon is attempting to change how life science innovations are funded, who gets to participate and to enjoy the potential returns."
Verseon isn't the only platform to have launched with the promise of improving the quality of medical research. In March, California-based Medable announced its Insight platform, which enables medical researchers to share data and other info-based resources. Not only does this cut down on the cost of research, but Insight will also reward those who share new data with the blockchain-based platform, with rewards coming in the form of funding and medical technology.
The fact that blockchain has a potentially bright future in the health industry is also indicated by the increasing role it’s having in medical insurance and medical licenses, where the likes of MetLife and the Illinois state government have been testing DLT-based systems that will secure the corresponding data. However, as promising as this all seems, there are a number of familiar challenges that need to be surmounted before blockchain tech will enjoy widespread adoption.
For one, blockchain-based health platforms will need to be able to scale and handle multiple transactions at speed. However, as Luxcore’s head of marketing, Brian Dors, explains to Cointelegraph, they’ll also need to be interoperable with each other, which will require the completion of such upcoming multi-chain platforms as Polkadot, Cosmos, Icon and others.
“Currently, it is difficult for different blockchains to communicate with each other, particularly if they are built on different platforms and utilize different consensus rules. This poses a significant barrier to implementation in a multi-stakeholder health care environment.”
There's also the perennial issue of regulation. "For blockchains to truly fulfil their potential of democratizing access to investment opportunities, the issuance and trading of security tokens need to comply with regulations," says Adityo Prakash.
And aside from regulation, there’s the obvious challenge of spreading awareness of blockchain, so that professionals and the public alike will be inclined to adopt DLT-based health platforms. But as Doc.com’s Charles Nader informs Cointelegraph, the financial incentives provided by cryptocurrencies may provide an effective way around this:
“One of the main challenges is getting the general population aware of what blockchain is and the benefits they get from using this technology. Besides this, the incentives must be in place so that people are willing to share their healthcare information with third parties over blockchain. This is something that only blockchain can facilitate, because it can reward its users with cryptocurrency for inputting data into the blockchain.”
Together, this all indicates that blockchain still has some ways to go before it will deliver on its promise in the medical sector. But because this sector has become increasingly “datafied” in recent years, it’s ripe to benefit from blockchain's decentralized, cryptographically secure power over data.