The applications of blockchain in the healthcare sector are potentially endless, and are benefiting the whole ecosystem, including patients, researchers, healthcare providers, as well as pharma, medtech, and insurance companies. The fact that AI technology is also involved makes it even more groundbreaking, as it’s one of the few sectors where both technologies can enhance each other in a tangible way. But like everything blockchain-related, it’s important to cut through the noise and understand which solutions are sustainable and revolutionary.
Initial applications mostly surround data sharing and management, which help solve a slew of issues, including transparency, efficiency, real-time assessment, and fraud prevention. “It's no secret the data infrastructure of the healthcare field is archaic and seems ripe for disruption,” says Brandon Green, project manager of BTC Inc. Beyond data sharing, other healthcare-related issues blockchain can solve include medical device tracking and security; securing the pharma supply chain to prevent counterfeit drugs and push against the opioid epidemic; physician credentialing and clinical trials.
With an exploding market size at stake – blockchain in healthcare is estimated to grow to $5.61B by 2025, from $176.8M in 2018, according to a report by BIS Research – and solutions that would revolutionize the sector, it’s no wonder that both major players and startups alike are racing to develop and implement solutions. The proliferation of conferences and think tanks (Convege2Xcelerate in New York last week, Distributed Health next month in Nashville) are also a testament to the growing interest.
Understanding the need to act fast, several healthcare behemoths are already partnering with startups to combine their strengths and expertise.
Doc.ai for example, a Palo Alto-based blockchain-based AI platform that connects people, data scientists, developers, and the healthcare industry to improve patients' future health outcomes, has recently partnered with Anthem, one of the U.S.’s leading insurance companies. Together, they are conducting a blockchain-based AI data trial.
The goal is to see whether AI can be used to predict when people will experience allergies or allergy patterns.
Sam De Brouwer, Doc.ai co-founder and COO, says that other huge players, such as United Healthcare and Humana, are also launching pilot projects in conjunction with startups to tackle data issues – which she deems one of the most pressing issues in the healthcare sector. “Blockchain is in some sense giving back control and transparency to the user/ the patient, which means everyone involved needs to think about how their jobs can evolve to be consistent with this view,” she says, adding that blockchain is already being deployed for tracking consents, micro-payments, data provenance – all putting the user as the main source of truth, as well as the true owner of their data.
“Blockchain is in some sense giving back control and transparency to the user/ the patient, which means everyone involved needs to think about how their jobs can evolve to be consistent with this view"
She adds, “There are many startups like us, trying to bring blockchain to the ecosystem as well, keeping a very user-centric view on things.”
Another company at the forefront of the effort is BurstIQ, which has commercially deployed a blockchain platform with multiple large healthcare enterprises, digital health companies, U.S. and international government entities. Frank Ricotta, CEO and founder, says that while blockchain solves issues in the healthcare system, “no one solution or application will solve the systemic challenges facing the global healthcare industry – they each play a vital role.”
He thinks that it’s imperative that these solutions build connectivity and interoperability across a broader industry-wide network, to ensure that insights and value gained in one area can be leveraged and amplified across the entire healthcare ecosystem.
While it’s difficult to determine what “ordinary” will look like with more mature enterprise-wide usage of blockchain in many facets of healthcare in the next few years, early adopters have the advantage to set the standards for the industry. “Late adopters will have to adapt to established standards or fade away," says Dr. Sean Manion, co-founder of Blockchain in Healthcare Global - IEEE/ISTO and CEO of Science Distributed. “Industries that don’t successfully find a consortium balance between collaboration and competition will be outcompeted by more decentralized applications from newcomers.”
Of course, there are still challenges around standardization, scalability, and regulation, and blockchain “is not magic pixie dust,” according to Brian Behlendorf, executive director of Hyperledger. But, he continues, “Without it, we will continue to spiral on incremental advances that still do nothing to tackle the trust issues in the healthcare industry that stymie so much forward progress.”