With the potential to deliver an efficient, cost-effective, reliable, and secure system to conduct and record transactions, blockchain is quickly gaining popularity in the enterprise space. What started as an enabler of cryptocurrency transactions has today found mainstream adoption across the banking and gaming industries. Given its inherent benefits, healthcare is likely to be the next big adopter of blockchain technology.
According to a Frost and Sullivan report, blockchain would have a disruptive effect on the healthcare industry over the next five to ten years. Forbes calls blockchain the unifying glue that will hold together a highly fragmented healthcare record. Many regard blockchain’s potential to resolve healthcare interoperability challenges as a game changer.
To understand blockchain’s impact on interoperability, it’s important to understand how blockchain works in simple terms. A blockchain database is a distributed database that records and stores transaction data in the form of time stamped “blocks” linked to each other in such a way that no one can alter any transaction data. Members of the blockchain network who validate the transactions are called nodes. Blockchain technology allows different types of nodes to enter the network using specialized software to perform different functions like mining and storing data.
Mining nodes in the network are assigned a secret private key that is paired with a public key. The public key acts as the “public address,” which is visible to all participants. The private and public key pair is cryptographically linked such that identification is possible in only one direction using the private key. Hence, a message encrypted using a private key can only be read by any node with a public key linked to the private key, thus limiting the number of users to access or read an encrypted message or the corresponding data.
Any action on a blockchain is a function of the network, so to alter any transaction data, a person would need to modify the same data in all the nodes in the network – making hacking practically impossible as someone would need to hack into all the systems in the network at the same time. In addition, blockchain is consensus-based, so every transaction needs approval from more than half of the participants or nodes before execution. While every transaction in blockchain is public, access to the content of each transaction can be restricted based on the sensitivity of the transaction.
Blockchain addresses current interoperability challenges
One of the key challenges in healthcare interoperability is that healthcare organizations are at different maturity levels when it comes to their data quality, governance mechanisms and use of standards. Some organizations tend to use FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), while others use the CDA standard for data exchange. Still others share data using the HL7 2.x standard. These varying data standards directly reduce interoperability. Enter blockchain, which helps overcome this challenge by accessing data through APIs. This achieves standardization of data formats to enable seamless data transmission, irrespective of the capabilities of EHRs to communicate with different HL7 versions. Moreover, blockchain addresses current challenges around syncing patient data with multiple, disparate healthcare information systems, while assuring patient data security and privacy through a distributed framework for managing patient identity.