The Federal Government announced in the May Budget the creation of a ‘My Health Record’ for every Australian that will begin from mid 2018. But just as this centralised and expensive project achieves launch velocity, a relatively new technology is gaining traction that could change record keeping, the Internet and almost every aspect of life. That technology is BLOCKCHAIN.
At its core, blockchain is a distributed system for recording and storing transaction records. This means the data is not stored by one central party or computer server. It uses cryptographic techniques to allow each participant in a network to store, exchange, and view information.
Estonia is one of the first countries to use blockchain in healthcare on a large scale. The country’s eHealth Authority has signed a deal with Guardtime, a blockchain pioneer, to secure the health records of over a million Estonians.
So how is blockchain better? The decentralised aspect means rather than storing data in a single database, multiple copies of the same data are synchronised in ledgers shared across a network of users.
Centralised systems, such as My Health Record, are honeypots for hackers who can install ransomware much like the recent WannaCry cyber attack that affected over a hundred countries. My Health Record may be set up as a secure system but the huge volume of data makes it a prime target for hackers.
Blockchain also creates the possibility of a more efficient health system. Currently, health records and data are in silos between different GPs, hospitals and specialists. This data is not easily shared. The cost and time of transferring medical records between healthcare facilities can be high. This leads to duplicate tests on patients that adds to inefficiencies in the system.
Using blockchain would dramatically increase efficiencies by streamlining access to medical data. The quality and coordination of care would rise while the costs and risks fall. This type of application is why The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently invested in blockchain company Factum to explore how the technology can help the developing world. It involves doctors accessing health data via their smartphone to tackle malaria and other deadly diseases.
The adoption of blockchain sounds pretty appealing. So what are the barriers?
Government policy clearly plays a major role in the technology the health system uses. But the pace of decision-making is being lapped by the technology available. This means My Health Record will need further investment to keep up.
There are other barriers to adoption. Anecdotal evidence suggests healthcare professionals are nervous about the transparency and accountability of the technology. Their medical decisions (good and bad) will be locked into the patient’s blockchai for further scrutiny at any point in the future. In theory, you’ll be able to identify the precise time, location and treating physician.
Peer review and transparency will increase, which is a good thing. But doctors may feel their professional opinion will leave them open to criticism and even legal action if they make a big mistake.Effective communications and strategic PR have important roles to play in tackling these and other barriers. Successful communications and education of the key audiences, including the Government and healthcare professionals, could be the difference between having a more sustainable health system today or when waste and inefficiencies in the health system become too much for taxpayers to bear.