The Role of Blockchain for Personal Data in Healthcare and Life Sciences

In this article, Egor Kobelev explores the opportunities for using blockchain in the healthcare domain. In particular, blockchain is now changing the way the industry treats data, enabling patients to retain control over their personal information.
1/06/20
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By Egor Kobelev
VP of Healthcare Technology at DataArt
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The Role of Blockchain for Personal Data in Healthcare and Life Sciences

Blockchain – a short word for distributed ledger technology (DTL) — is a decentralized database that stores a registry of assets, data, and transactions across a network of users. The transaction history is locked in data blocks that are linked together and secured through cryptography. The record is replicated on every computer that uses the network. The technology uses digital signatures and a consensus mechanism that ensures participants can agree on which transactions are valid.

This mechanism provides an immutable record of all transactions, the ability to prevent data loss, traceability of digital assets, and a high level of security.

In healthcare, blockchain is being used to change the way the industry treats data, enabling patients to retain control over their personal information.

Read more: Blockchain in Healthcare: Complex Challenges, Overshadowed by the Hype, Need to be Overcome

Protecting Patient Records from Unintended Use

In the United States, patient information is scattered across various healthcare institutions and disorganized. Patients go to primary care physicians, specialists, diagnostic centers, or hospitals, with each of those providers creating unique records with little or no connections between them. If the patient decides to move, change primary care physicians, see different specialists, or go into a different medical system altogether, new doctors would not be able to access older records seamlessly.

Essentially, over the lifetime of the patient, a footprint of healthcare records is created that is fragmented across multiple healthcare organizations.

This information is increasingly accessed by analytics organizations (without explicit patient consent) that are typically linking outcome information, such as lab data, annual physicals data, and demographic data from patient records to the cost of services through claims data.

Some larger medical centers may have consent for this type of usage hidden in privacy forms that the patient fills out before an appointment with their doctor. These institutions might strip out personally identifiable information like social security numbers, names, or dates of birth, but they instead use internal ID systems that link to all of the information that patients have accumulated over the years.

Many healthcare facilities now realize that this information should belong to the patient, who should have a say over whether and how their information is used. Some take that a step further and contend that any information that would be useful for developing a product or commercialization should then benefit the patient, the owner of that information, financially.

With that in mind, the problem arises—how can this activity be tracked?

That is where blockchain comes in. Healthcare records can be encoded in the chain, and patients would have full control of how to transact their information, creating a marketplace where researchers and healthcare providers ask the patient for permission directly.

Blockchain is beginning to be used for government-controlled healthcare systems as a means to secure patient records, avoid fraud and hacking, and allow patients to control precisely how the information is handled. At least two dozen companies are offering blockchain-based products in this domain. One is a central European company Aria that developed an open-source EHR platform. Another is Patient Orient that pitched their blockchain-based platform to the UK government as a more secure alternative to traditional systems. 

Giving People Control over Their Genomic and Microbiome Information

Over the last few years, we have seen several companies that offer genomic services to consumers. One of the pioneers in this market is 23 & Me. An individual can donate a saliva sample to 23 & Me, and, for a fee, they will do a genomic analysis on the sample and provide their customers with information about his or her ancestry, ethnicity, race, and predispositions for certain diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, cystic fibrosis, some types of cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

When a person completes one of these genomic analyses from 23 & Me or similar companies like Ancestry.com, the information is kept by those companies. They have, over the years, accumulated millions of patient genomes, and have the freedom of using that information at their discretion.

Recently, 23 & Me licensed out their entire collection of human genomes to a pharma company for a fee. The company claims that the records are de-identified, but the data itself is identifiable, especially when given to a large pharma company like GSK, that can then cross-reference the information in whichever way they like. In this type of exchange, the consumer has no control over their own genomic information. 

The company Nebula Genomics, one of several that are breaking into this market, is taking 23 & Me’s testing model and adding blockchain technology, to give back the control of genomic data to the consumer. The tech being developed by Nebula Genomics is meant to secure genomic information so that it cannot be shared with anybody else, whether that is for research or commercial use unless consented to by the consumer.

The protection of our personal molecular data does not stop simply at our genome. Companies like Doc A.I. and Znome contend that all information pertaining to an individual, including the unique signature of a person’s microbiome, should be protected.

A microbiome is the collection of bacteria that live in our digestive system and assists us in extracting nutrients and digesting our food. Each person has a unique microbiome signature that begins developing before birth. This symbiotic bacteria is essential to gut health and can offer up quite a bit of information about the individual. Researchers have looked into how biomes are different between geographical regions. For instance, microbiome colonies that might be fairly common in China are not going to be as prevalent in the United States. 

The research into the importance of the individual microbiome continues to gain momentum. Scientists are finding that it may play a critical role in healthcare outcomes for chronic diseases and conditions that develop over time. 

While the science of microbiomes continues to be debated, it is clear that this unique biological signature is incredibly important and personal for each individual. So, like a person’s genome, this information should be protected, and blockchain offers a solution that can reinstate the patient’s ownership over their data.

Assuring Drug Authenticity

Counterfeit drugs represent an extremely dangerous and frighteningly common issue facing patients and medical providers around the world. Patients sometimes find that they have bought a fake, and often extremely dangerous and volatile, version of the drug they intended to purchase. This is especially true in Asia, Africa, and South America.

BlockPharma is one of the few companies tackling this issue by utilizing the tracking and security potential of blockchain. The drugs can be tracked from the manufacturer to the healthcare facility, and finally to the patient, eliminating doubts as to drug authenticity. 

Like with cryptocurrency, each transaction or exchange of the drug is tracked and approved by both parties, and the path can be traced from the patient all the way back to the factory that produced a specific batch.

Buying into Security

At this point in the United States, integrating all health care records seems like an unmanageable objective because the records are so fragmented.

The data companies working with Humana or Aetna might be different from the companies working with United Healthcare—and many smaller regional carriers that serve millions of people in the country.

The main challenge here is getting insurance companies and healthcare providers on the same page in terms of elevating patient security and privacy above all other concerns.

DataArt helped numerous healthcare companies improve quality of care and eliminate costly administrative inefficiencies with blockchain technology. We will ensure business and technical success of your distributed ledger projects. Contact us today to discuss your needs!

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