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The Fast-Growing Impact of Distributed Ledgers on the Healthcare Sector

Gem, a provider of enterprise blockchain solutions, recently launched Gem Health, a network for developing applications and shared infrastructure for healthcare powered by the Ethereum blockchain and announced that Philips Blockchain Lab, a research and development center of healthcare giant Philips, was the first major healthcare operator to join the Gem Health network.

“A lot of healthcare companies started reaching out to us,” Gem Founder and CEO Micah Winkelspecht told Bitcoin Magazine. “Many [physicians] see the problems with today’s technology and are fed up with the current system. Physicians want to help. And so we want to create a platform for all the different stakeholders to collaborate.”

The healthcare sector as a whole is warming up to distributed ledgers as a practical and convenient way to streamline critical processes and overcome the information-sharing bottlenecks that have characterized the sector so far. Healthcare information management is a system-wide process that must balance conflicting requirements: On the one hand, critical patient information must be immediately available to physicians and emergency care personnel but on the other hand, security and privacy must be ensured. In a modern healthcare system, all (and only) the needed information must be immediately available where it’s needed; and it must be accessible to all (and only) those who need to know, which is a significant challenge.

In fact, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology announced a Blockchain Challenge titled "Use of Blockchain in Health IT and Health-Related Research," soliciting white papers on blockchain technology for health IT and ways to address the privacy, security and scalability challenges of managing electronic health records and resources. A podcast titled “Blockchain in healthcare is quickly becoming a reality” covers the Blockchain Challenge, as well as the Philips initiative mentioned above.

Bruce Broussard, President and CEO of healthcare operator Humana, explained that distributed ledgers allow for interoperability at a new level for health care. “Electronic Health Records (EHRs) connect right into the blockchain, where information is not just integrated into the EHR from the hospital, but from providers and specialists,” he said, adding that blockchain technology can deliver the the right data at the right time on a need-to-know basis, facilitating new models for operators in modern societies, with needed cooperation replacing competition. “Competitors working together for the consumer,” said Broussard. “The promise of blockchain is about putting the consumer at the center of health care, instead of the other way around.”

“We’re trying to establish a common set of standards for health implementation,” noted Maarten Ligtvoet, a product manager at Nictiz, a Dutch standardization and e-health operator, at a Hyperledger meetup in Amsterdam sponsored by Altoros. “You need a common set of terms which you can use in medical files so that machines can parse medical data and make decisions based on that information.” The great value proposition of blockchain technology is, according to Ligtvoet, simple: “From a health perspective, it gives more control to patients.”

HealthIT Security notes that different providers often have their own versions of a patient’s record. These records are not always validated against one another, which represents a potential danger for the patient. A distributed ledger can have validation built in — for example, a bitcoin transaction is rejected if the sender doesn’t have enough funds — and permits implementing multiple checkpoints, which can enhance security besides consistency and integrity

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new research effort — the Precision Medicine Initiative — to develop new methods in medicine, focused on delivering more tailored health care. "Doctors have always recognized that every patient is unique and doctors have always tried to tailor their treatments as best they can to individuals," said the President. "You can match a blood transfusion to a blood type — that was an important discovery. What if matching a cancer cure to our genetic code was just as easy, just as standard? What if figuring out the right dose of medicine was as simple as taking our temperature?"

The Precision Medicine Initiative’s mission is: “To enable a new era of medicine through research, technology and policies that empower patients, researchers and providers to work together toward development of individualized care.” Precision medicine, which represents an important research and operational trend for healthcare, could significantly benefit from the flexibility provided by distributed ledgers.

At the recent Bio-IT World Congress, John Mattison, chief medical information officer and assistant medical director for Kaiser Permanente, discussed important challenges in precision medicine, that could be addressed by distributed ledgers, Clinical Innovation Technology reports.

“I believe blockchain will revolutionize how research is conducted,” said Mattison, noting that blockchain technology “promises to give individual citizens worldwide the right to contain, maintain and manage the who, what, how, when and where of their medical record.” This could reduce the reluctance of citizens to make their clinical data available to researchers, which is a cornerstone of precision medicine. In fact, only the analysis of medical and clinical data from a large sample of people permits extracting insights useful for precision medicine. Mattison imagines a scenario in which data donors are regularly informed of how their data is being used.

“Blockchain is going to be the most disruptive technology in this space aside from data analytics,” predicts Mattison.

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