Blockchain is best known as the data-sharing technology behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Etherium. However, there is increasing interest in how they can be used outside of cryptocurrency transactions to support the sharing of data within other industries. As medical technology develops, there is an increasing need to securely share an ever-growing volume of data between healthcare providers around the world. Industry leaders interviewed by GlobalData have highlighted blockchain as a solution.

The concept of a blockchain was first proposed by the developer of Bitcoin, under the name of Satoshi Nakamoto, as a new way of making online financial transactions. Traditionally, financial transactions over the internet would transfer between two parties through a centralized financial institution such as a bank, which acted as a network hub.

Nakamoto wanted to circumvent the financial institution and allow the direct transfer of a currency between two parties through a peer-to-peer network connection while maintaining transaction security and preventing fraud. Blockchains are designed as a way of encrypting data across a peer-to-peer network and providing a secure environment for the transfer of currency directly between two individuals.

Sharing data between healthcare providers

After the success of Bitcoin brought blockchains to the attention of the world, business leaders in other industries have been looking at ways to adopt the technology for their own use. In healthcare spaces, the amount of data being produced is increasing exponentially as patient records become digitalized and hospital equipment and wearable tech have begun collecting swathes of patient data.

One major challenge facing the industry is how to share this sensitive data with other healthcare providers globally. Blockchains offer a solution to this problem by allowing the transfer of medical data around the world without the need for a middle-man, while ensuring that sensitive patient data is kept safe.

In an effort to explore the potential uses of blockchain in healthcare, the FDA announced a collaborative project with IBM Watson in January 2017 that set out to investigate how to incorporate this technology into the sharing of data from electronic medical records, clinical trials, genomic data, and health data from mobile devices, wearables, and the “Internet of Things.”

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The private venture, Patientory Inc., has already begun to put this into practice with an app-based platform that is able to connect data from doctors, care providers, and patients through blockchain technology, thus providing protection against data breaches.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also announced its intention to incorporate blockchain into a service to share data on the spread of infectious diseases, with the hope that blockchain will provide an effective way to ensure that information from a disease outbreak reaches the necessary people in order to control the spread of the disease as quickly as possible.

Tracing supply chains for drug distributors

Transferring patient data is not the only potential application for blockchain technology. Counterfeit drugs are a major problem in low- and middle-income countries, with the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that one in 10 drugs in these markets are substandard or falsified.

As a result, pharmaceutical companies have suggested that there could be a use for blockchain technology to trace the supply chain of a drug, as the transparent nature of blockchain makes it an attractive solution that drug distributors can use to verify that a drug was manufactured legitimately.

Overall, blockchain technology has plenty to offer to the healthcare industry as a means of data distribution. With the efforts from the FDA to investigate new blockchain applications, and the increased awareness of the technology resulting from the Bitcoin boom that has occurred in recent months, GlobalData expects blockchain to be an important theme in the healthcare industry in the coming years.