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A New Frontier for Community Healthcare

America’s community health center movement originated as a group of public health and justice advocates who became active during the 1960s. A major catalyst in the movement’s development was a young South Africa-educated doctor named H. Jack Geiger. Geiger committed himself to observing how a progressive community health model could substantially improve a community.

Today, there are over 1,200 community health centers nationwide that offer critical, primary and preventive care services to underserved populations with otherwise limited access to care. Nationwide, the network of community health centers encompasses 24 million people at over 9,200 locations throughout the 50 states and some U.S. territories.

On a daily basis, these care centers deliver medical services to populations without regard to socioeconomic status, insurance level, racial or cultural background or health conditions. Services include primary care visits, health screenings, immunizations and dental, prenatal and mental health services. Community outreach centers often employ this type of outreach effort as a way to better serve populations with below average healthcare.

The positive effects of community health centers include lower levels of infant mortality, reduced emergency department demands and an overall uptick in patients living longer and healthier lives. According to the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), funding for centers derives from revenue generated through both the public and private sectors, through various means including federal, state and local sources, as well as insurance programs. The presence of community health centers works as a safety net for many Americans who otherwise would struggle to get access to quality and affordable care.

Blockchain and the Future of Community Health

Thus far in 2017 most conversations about the future of information technology are also about blockchain technology. Now there might even be a potential application in using a blockchain or a network of digitally-immutable events in a community health model.

Further investigation and future implementation would depend on NACHC and other thought leader organizations within this space to quickly advance in their understanding of how the technology could be manipulated at the crossroads of healthcare and technology. A strong educational foundation will facilitate use cases that demonstrate the applied benefits and adoption opportunities of the blockchain across the health center landscape.

Keeping this in mind, here are four benefits blockchain technology could contribute to the community health center model.

1. Electronic Health Records

An August 2016 report by the consulting firm Deloitte underscored the blockchain’s utility in transforming healthcare’s IT infrastructure while boosting the security, privacy and interoperability of electronic health records. This solves one major obstacle for community health centers: how to fuse common infrastructures and standards that facilitate the safe transfer of private health information among healthcare system stakeholders.

The ultimate goal for initiatives in this space is to channel information from the patient through the health center when medical care is delivered. The blockchain is ripe for the patient to health center segment as it’s a technology that offers patients the ability to easily gather their personal health records from multiple sources in a secure and efficient manner.  

2. Drug Pricing

Many community health centers provide low-income patients with pharmaceuticals at discounted prices by using the 340B Drug Pricing Program. This need for low-cost pharmaceuticals speaks to the blockchain’s potential for cutting pharma costs while protecting patient lives as another indirect benefit for health centers. It also suggests a mechanism for mitigating the flow of counterfeit drugs that regularly populate the pharmaceutical ecosystem. Finally, blockchain technology can potentially prevent the rampant overcharging  of drugs by pharmaceutical manufacturers that currently has affected patients served by our nation’s community health center.

It’s expected that interest in these initiatives will grow given the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announcement this year which finalized its rule for 340B drug pricing, setting civil monetary penalties of up to $5,000 for each instance where a drug manufacturer is found to have overcharged for a drug covered by the program.

3. Claims Reconciliation and Billing Management

Blockchain-based applications that apply to claims and billing management of community health centers hold enormous promise for reducing administrative costs while increasing productivity for health providers and their support staff.

4. IT Security and Privacy

The 2016 data breach at a California-based community health center highlights the ongoing concern within the healthcare community regarding data security. The vulnerabilities associated with centralized server systems used by health provider organizations nationwide have been well documented.

According to the Protenus Breach Barometer report, over 40 health data breaches took place in 2016, impacting over 27 million patients. It’s here where a blockchain-enabled solution could produce greater security, privacy and reliability for patient data, all in accord with existing Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws.

The Road Ahead

The value proposition of blockchain technology is a clear solution to these points of friction within this sector of healthcare. However, the blockchain is still relatively new to business. That means it needs to be tested and applied to a practical situation before it will be leveraged more widely.

Moreover, there is a lack of clarity surrounding how and when satisfactory regulations can be set in place to allow healthcare innovators and technologists to move forward. Certainly, the promise of the blockchain cannot come quickly enough given the complex interoperability and security issues facing the healthcare industry as a whole.

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