Blockchain is Back: COVID-19 Highlights Healthcare Use Cases

By Brett Furst, President, HHS Technology Group
Twitter: @HHSTechGroup

Once a victim of Gartner’s infamous “hype cycle,” blockchain technology has begun to demonstrate its value in healthcare as a handful of important use cases have become apparent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In general, blockchain is most appropriate for use cases that need real-time access to critical information from trusted sources, primarily as a result of blockchain’s ability to promote trust, transparency and privacy in data-sharing.

As most industry data-sharing practices stand today, it is very difficult to obtain actionable information with confidence, due to false positives, duplicate records and privacy issues. Further, a reluctance on the part of much of the healthcare industry to share data as a result of privacy, trust and competition concerns also erodes healthcare transparency.

In contrast, blockchain’s inherent qualities enable data-sharing among competitive entities, while also supporting their privacy and independence. These fundamental qualities of blockchain have driven the technology’s evolution into a leading solution for several critical healthcare functions during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as contact tracing, provider credentialing, and patient records-sharing.

A primer on blockchain basics
Like other buzzed-about technologies, blockchain has reached a point at which it’s difficult to separate hype from reality. That means healthcare leaders should strive to achieve at least a surface level understanding of what blockchain is and what it can do so they can avoid a misunderstanding of the technology’s strengths and weaknesses.

Blockchain is a type of distributed ledger technology, which refers to a database that exists across several locations or among multiple participants, enabling users to share trusted and verified information in a decentralized manner. Developers can combine blockchain with security and cryptography technology to protect the privacy of users who contribute data while also sharing the provenance of the data, enhancing trust.

Blockchain provides a safe, effective way to document, maintain, store, and move data – whether health records or financial transactions. Using blockchain technology, users can directly engage with other entities to receive services, transfer money, and perform other common daily tasks that are critical to business.

COVID-19 points the way to blockchain use cases
Blockchain’s greatest contributions to healthcare are likely to be promoting more trust and privacy as a result of the technology’s ability to enable better data accuracy and verification. At the most basic level, blockchain changes ownership and control of data from one centralized source to multiple sources that contribute data. Here are three critical COVID-19-related use cases for blockchain in healthcare.

Contact tracing: Many local and state governments have embarked upon the process of contact tracing to follow the trail of virus transmission among their citizens. Contact tracing happens when public health workers contact infected individuals to request a list of all other people they’ve come into contact with over a certain period of time. Contact tracing is enhanced by blockchain’s inherent decentralization of data because the process relies on the use of granular, sensitive information to inform public health officials of who may be at-risk of exposure based on their contacts. At every step of the way, maintaining individuals’ privacy is critical. Earlier this year, blockchain platform Nodle launched a contact-tracing app that emphasized user privacy called “Coalition.”

Patient record-sharing: One of blockchain’s most important COVID-19 uses cases involves its strength in aggregating patients’ medical records during a natural disaster or pandemic to produce a “light” electronic health records system. Doctors and other medical providers can use these systems to access and share records as they treat patients during the crisis. These patient-records platforms help providers diagnose, treat and prescribe medicine for patients who lack access to their usual physicians during a crisis by enabling doctors to review the medical histories of these unfamiliar patients. The bottom line: Regardless of where a patient is located during a disaster, these systems enable physicians to access patients’ personal medical information to deliver critical medical services. Patient data can be provided through blockchain digital wallet, enabling access, security and integrity of data.

Provider credentialing: A frequently tedious and time-consuming task for providers and payers, provider credentialing is the process that comprises verifying clinicians’ skills, training and education. Due to manual steps, the lengthy process sometimes causes delays in care that can drive poor health outcomes. However, providers can use blockchain to manage the credentialing process, enabling them to maintain control of their own data while granting health systems, payers and other authorities access to their credentials. As an illustration of the technology’s potential for provider credentialing, five organizations earlier this year detailed plans to use a new blockchain credentialing system from ProCredEx with the goal of reducing time and costs associated with the traditional approach to the process.

The next steps for blockchain in healthcare
A quick word of caution: Because blockchain remains an emerging technology, to truly realize its value will necessitate an industry-wide cultural and paradigm shift by traditionally competitive organizations toward broader collaboration. Catalyzing such a wide shift is likely to be a slow process, and will require focus, trust and vision to collaborate towards a common goal. Blockchain has presented us with the technology to do it, but the question now is whether the healthcare industry has the will.