What Should Health Care Providers be Thinking About Blockchain?

Providers, both for-profit and not-for-profit, are investing in blockchain at record levels — as are insurers and technology vendors. A 2018 study published in Outlier Ventures found that blockchain investment was up 316% in the previous year. This is particularly striking since the health care blockchain market has been developing since only 2016.

What is blockchain? A blockchain is, in simple terms, a time-stamped series of immutable records of data that are managed by a cluster of computers not owned by any single entity. Each of these blocks of data (i.e., block) are secured and bound to each other using cryptographic principles (i.e., chain). Blockchains can be either permissioned, controlled-access systems or public, free-to-access environments. A blockchain generally carries no transaction cost.

Networks that will make a splash in 2019 are in supply chain, credentialing, provider directories, and contracting. Aetna, Humana, United Healthcare and IBM all have blockchain initiatives focused on provider directories, claims processing and revenue cycle management.

New uses are emerging in physician credentialing and payment contracting. Some projects focus on using blockchains to exchange patient data and improve medical record management. Some potential benefits include:

  • Decentralized management, which can make collaboration easier;
  • An immutable audit trail;
  • Traceable origins for medical records;
  • Greater continuous availability of data; and
  • Increased privacy and security of medical records using encryption.

Despite its promise, blockchain is not a panacea for every provider problem. The National Institute of Standards and Technology published an overview of blockchain technology which it described it as “just one part of a solution.” It advised organizations to consider blockchain applications with the same caution they apply to other new technologies.

How should providers prepare for the use of blockchain?

  • Identify the opportunities where blockchain can be used;
  • Continue to learn as the technology continues to grow;
  • Identify the customer demand for and benefits of blockchain;
  • Listen to and engage with others in your business segment; and
  • Consider how blockchain fits with state, national and international privacy laws such as HIPAA and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.