Blockchain has already found myriad applications in almost every industry imaginable. This much-discussed technology is changing the way we think about money and revolutionizing e-commerce. It’s allowing us to trace everything we buy — including our food — right back to its origins.
But when it comes to our health, this technology could be more important than it is in any other industry. Indeed, blockchain medical records could even save lives.
The problem with digitized health records
There’s no doubt digitized health records are a necessity in the 21st century. Medical professionals need immediate access to your medical data in order to give you the best treatment possible. This is especially important if you need urgent medical help when you’re away from home.
There is, however, a dark flipside to digitized health records. As with any centralized database, there’s a risk that hackers could access a treasure trove of personal information.
Several countries have already suffered from major security breaches involving medical data. In the UK, NHS doctors accidentally compromised millions of patients’ data simply by changing privacy settings to share it with other health professionals. While there was no malice in this breach, it left huge amounts of data vulnerable to cybercriminals.
The Australian government has copped heavy criticism for its My Health Record system, which is very similar to its British counterpart. Many Australians have decided to opt out of the system, which they say is vulnerable to data breaches.
Of course, most people haven’t given much thought to the security of their medical records. After all, if you’re reasonably healthy, you might not be too worried about your health data getting into the wrong hands. But if you have a more extensive medical history, you’ll understand exactly how sensitive that data is.
Your medical secrets: From embarrassing to life-destroying
You can probably imagine a situation where a breach of your medical privacy would be embarrassing. Nobody needs to know about that awkward rash you picked up in Thailand. You probably don’t want to talk about the time you drank too much and walked through a window…
While that information is sensitive, it’s probably not going to do you a huge amount of harm in the long run. However, if you have chronic health issues, it’s a different story.
Let’s consider a few scenarios.
At the most basic level, hackers could steal your medical data and sell it on the black market. Whoever obtains that information could then use it to file fraudulent insurance claims or buy medication illegally. Even if you can prove that you did nothing wrong, you’d still have a huge mess to clean up. That could be both time-consuming and expensive.
Now, imagine what would happen if hackers used your medical data to hold you to ransom. Perhaps you’ve had sensitive medical issues in the past, such as a drug problem or mental health struggles. Hackers could threaten to reveal this information to your employer, your partner, or even the media unless you pay them a hefty ransom. That could damage your credibility and make it almost impossible to find a job in the future.
The worst-case scenario
You might not think you have any health issues to hide. But remember, if hackers can access your data, they can probably alter it, too. A devious hacker could forge your records and completely fabricate a sensitive medical issue to use against you later.
Let’s take it one step further. Imagine you’re allergic to a certain type of medication. If someone wanted to harm you, they could hack into your records and remove any reference to that allergy. A doctor could mistakenly administer that medicine without realizing you’re allergic to it. The consequences, as you could imagine, would be grave.
So, we need to find a balance between access and security when it comes to digitized health data. This is where blockchain medical records could provide the perfect solution.
Blockchain medical records: The best of both worlds
There is perhaps no better use for the world’s most talked-about technology than blockchain medical records. With its immutable ledger, a private blockchain could securely hold patients’ information while also allowing medical professionals to access that data when necessary.
The key to blockchain medical records is that patients have complete control over their own data. You can decide which medical professionals have access to your records, and you can revoke that access at any time.
Let’s consider how this system would work in practice. If you’ve been visiting the same doctor for 20 years and have complete trust in them, you might decide to give that doctor permanent access to your records. However, if you’re in a different city and need to see a new doctor for an emergency, you could give them access and then revoke it immediately once your problem has cleared up.
The same would apply if you had to visit a specialist doctor. For example, you could give your cardiologist access to data that’s relevant to your heart condition, but choose not to disclose information about other unrelated medical issues.
Blockchain medical records could also cover you in situations where you’re unable to share your medical data. For example, if you were in a coma, you wouldn’t be able to give consent to share your medical data. However, if you’ve given permission to your next of kin — maybe a parent or sibling — they could share your data on your behalf.
Estonia setting the tone
As is the case with many technological advances, Estonia is leading the way when it comes to blockchain medical records. The small Baltic nation implemented blockchain into its medical system in 2017. Ever since, its 1.3 million citizens have reaped the benefits.
Estonia contracted software security firm Guardtime to create its “off-chain” health record system. The result provides the security benefits of blockchain without having to actually store petabytes worth of data on the chain.
Transitioning to blockchain medical records is relatively simple in a small country like Estonia, which has universal public healthcare. It gets much trickier in larger countries like the US, where hundreds of private healthcare providers use their own data-storage systems. Despite this, the US government has shown at least some interest in using blockchain in its healthcare system.
A range of blockchain companies is competing to bring their own solutions to the field. Of course, this competition could create even more fractures in countries that already rely on private healthcare providers. Whichever of these firms can win a federal tender in the US will be laughing all the way to the bank.
We’re yet to see just how much blockchain medical records could help both healthcare professionals and patients. But there’s little doubt that in the coming years, many more countries will look to secure their medical data with blockchain.