I've written a number of times about the potential for blockchain technology in healthcare. The prospect of using technologies such as blockchain in the NHS was first espoused in a report published last year by the UK’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Mark Walport.
“In the NHS, the technology offers the potential to improve health care by improving and authenticating the delivery of services and by sharing records securely, according to exact rules,” it says.
A recent paper from the Biogerontology Research Foundation Chief Science Officer continues the trend by discussing the potential of blockchain to decentralize and galvanize both healthcare but also biomedical research.
The authors propose a blockchain-enabled framework to empower patients and give them control over their medical data, both in how it is used, who uses it (and even whether they pay to use it).
"This new paper in Oncotarget does more than advocate for increased patient empowerment and more efficient and decentralized management of patient data. It also puts forward a roadmap toward how decentralized, blockchain-based patient data ecosystem can enable the development of more comprehensive clinical databases, which would serve to galvanize progress in drug discovery, biomarker development, and preventative healthcare. Patients currently have little incentive to contribute to such databases, resulting in a dearth of such databases for use in the life sciences community and industry, in comparison to what might be if patients had more incentive to contribute to such databases. By providing a system to incentivize patients by providing them with tangible compensation for the collection and use of their data, blockchain-based patient data management systems could serve to accelerate progress in biomedicine in general by increasing the quality and comprehensiveness of clinical databases for use by biomedical researchers, institutions and companies alike" the authors say.
A potential roadmap?
Suffice to say, such a development is some way off, and the authors attempt to bridge the gap via a conceptual roadmap that can eventually result in a decentralized data marketplace within healthcare that would not only provide better care, but also significantly support the march towards personalized medicine.
It would also help to overcome many of the regulatory hurdles currently faced by the sector around the ethical use of patient data for various aspects of medical research and drug discovery.
"Blockchain technologies are rapidly decentralizing and disrupting more fields and industries with each passing day. The disruptive potential of crypto economy and blockchain technologies has become apparent to many over the past year, and the time for its decentralizing potential to impact the life sciences space is upon us. Since its inception the Biogerontology Research Foundation has strove to stay on the cutting edge of applying highly innovative and disruptive cross-disciplinary approaches to geroscience and aging research, such as through its extensive use of AI and deep learning to the problem of biological aging, and this newest paper marks the beginning of the foundation's efforts to apply blockchain technology to the life sciences arena" the authors say.
Blockchain in practice
Orange are one company that are hoping to help blockchain enter healthcare in a substantial way. Through Orange Labs, the company are actively working to give people back control of their own data. For instance, at the Orange Research Salon in 2016, the company presented a blockchain based consent management system that allows patients to easily control and manage access to their medical data by third parties.
“Increasingly, we realise that it is difficult to keep control over our data. For Orange, the subject of digital trust is important and this is why our research teams explore different technologies which could ensure better governance for the users,” the company say.
The researchers are convinced that blockchain can have a significant impact, both in a medical but also social sense. In addition to working on the technical aspects, therefore, they are also working hard on the social aspects of the technology, and communicating the benefits to the general public.
“Researchers should not remain locked up in their offices, they should take the time to explain their work to people, help them grasp concepts and technologies that may initially appear complex,” they explain.
Whilst we remain some way off having the kind of decentralized health data marketplace, there are at least some positive signs that we’re heading in the right direction.