In May 2017, a ransomware attack spiraled out of control, infecting and destroying data on hundreds of thousands of computers as it spread like wildfire across the globe. What made the attack so devastating, was the number and type of victims. Along with major corporations like FedEx, Honda and Nissan, the attack targeted the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).
Within a matter of hours, more than a third of U.K. hospitals were taken offline, forcing many of them to divert ambulances to other facilities and limiting access to important medical records.. The hack canceled more than 19,000 patient appointments and cost the NHS nearly £100 million. Known as the WannaCry attack, it became one of the worst cyberattacks in history. This attack showed the vulnerabilities of our current data infrastructure, but emerging technologies, like blockchain and the cloud, might offer stronger ways to secure health data.
The damage might have been worse if not for a 22-year-old hacker from the English countryside, who discovered and triggered the ransomware’s kill switch, single-handedly saving the worldwide internet in the process.
According to University of Minnesota Public Health researchers, the annual number of ransomware attacks on health care provider organizations more than doubled from 2016 to 2021, exposing the personal health information of nearly 42 million individuals. Often medical records were targeted leading to the exposure of patients’ social security numbers, addresses, and health insurance information.
Incidents like this illustrate just how vulnerable the healthcare industry is to cyberattacks and the scale of disaster that can ensue when it falls prey to them. Fortunately, solutions are on the way. One of the most promising, for instance, is blockchain.
But blockchain’s game-changing potential isn’t limited to security. With blockchain in healthcare, everything is faster, cheaper and more secure. As a result, healthy living can be incentivized, care personalized, research aided, access improved, and individuals empowered.
Healthcare: The ‘Next Big Thing’ in Blockchain
Blockchain is a digital ledger technology that’s transparent, immutable, decentralized and distributed. They don’t have a single owner, they don’t live on a single machine, they can’t be changed or edited and anyone can view the transactions that they record. Consider it a democratic way of managing data, which is why blockchain technology undergirds things like cryptocurrency – which utilizes blockchain to track and validate the ownership of digital coinage.
What began with Bitcoin, however, is rapidly expanding to other use cases as industries like healthcare find more applications for blockchain’s inherent benefits.
“Healthcare is certainly one of the next big things that will be revolutionized by blockchain technology,” said geneticist and futurist Axel Schumacher, CEO of HLTH.network, a company that’s building a blockchain-based global health ecosystem.
“Everything is based on blockchain architecture, which means there’s data provenance. You can’t tamper with the data, it’s highly secure and you can anonymize data streams. You have much better security because of the strong cryptographic features of blockchains. This makes the whole healthcare system safer, cheaper, quicker and automated.”
An investment in emerging healthcare-related technologies is all about timing, but as the digital transformation continues, these investments have the power to save lives.
Ways Blockchain Can Secure Health Data
Blockchain’s distributed nature is key. With so many different nodes running the blockchain, there’s no single point of failure, which makes blockchain medical records almost impossible to hack.
“Blockchain really provides that trust factor – that kind of connective tissue that lets you unify data, be able to present data, and still allow you to respect somebody's privacy and all the rules and regulations around it,” said Frank Ricotta, CEO of BurstIQ, which employs blockchain health technology for its clients.
The benefits of blockchain technology in healthcare have already come to light in an unlikely place: Estonia. Previously plagued by hacks, the Eastern European nation has embraced blockchain technology medical records and now has a healthcare system that is almost entirely ledger-based. The system serves more than 1 million patients.
“Blockchain technologies can offer individual citizens for the first time a fully transparent and accurate view of their medical data,” PwC’s Johnathon Marshall reported in a 2017 blog post about Estonia’s eHealth Authority.
“No state agency, private sector organization or indeed any malicious hacker, can change the record without being visible to the whole network, including the patient, in real time. The effect on individual empowerment, on medical transparency, and on the healthcare profession’s duty of candor with its patients is potentially revolutionary.”
Using Estonia’s Patient Portal, citizens can access medical documents, referral responses, prescriptions and insurance information while also declaring their intentions regarding blood transfusions and organ donation.
“Estonia is leading the way in the blockchain revolution,” Marshall continued. “It’s showing how it can ensure data security, facilitate better healthcare and more efficient transactions, and empower patients. Other nations should take note.”
What blockchain technology in healthcare ultimately allows, however, is patient care that transcends national borders. Patients who once lacked access to healthcare, for instance, can now consult with a doctor anywhere in the world thanks in part to blockchain.
“Our vision is that everything is democratized and decentralized – that people have access to healthcare products and services within one ecosystem, which means they get better data, they get cheaper healthcare [and] we can reach rural areas and regions of the world where people usually have no access to this kind of healthcare or precision medicine,” Schumacher said.
A New Kind of Data Economy
It’s no secret that Apple, Facebook and Google rake in millions of dollars from personal data. If corporations can profit off of their information, Ricotta believes individuals should be able to do the same.
“How you can invent different incentive structures based around digital currencies within some of these next-gen health applications, and how that could change the whole aspect of data sharing?” he asked.
HLTH.network believes it has the answer.
“We empower people to own and be the masters of their own data,” Schumacher said.
“Everything is about data, and in order to understand complex diseases, you need information. Trillions of data transactions will come in the coming years and we want to help people manage these transactions and support all human beings by helping them collect, share and monetize data in a fair and democratized process. This is a new kind of data economy.”
One way HLTH.network is building a new kind of data economy is by building an NFT marketplace for genomic and healthcare information, including, perhaps, the most personal of all medical information: one’s DNA.
“We believe almost everything in healthcare and precision medicine will be tokenized at some point,” Schumacher continued.
NFT stands for “non-fungible token.” Facilitated by the blockchain, these “tokens” are unique and can represent ownership of either digital or real-world assets.
“Anything can be digitized and represented as an NFT,” Schumacher explained. “By doing this, you can prove ownership, you can use it as a proper digital asset, you can sell it, you can license it or you can organize shared ownership. With NFTs, you can link smart contracts. It means automating fine-grain rules. Let’s assume you have genetic data; you have the option to share it for free to support science research, but you also have the option to monetize your data. I even think that at some point in the future, it’ll replace some parts of classical [intellectual property], like patents.”
He sees massive opportunities arising once blockchain and NFTs are widely used.
Despite the fall of NFTs in 2022 for a public market, there’s still energy and investment in healthcare-based applications. When NFTs are mentioned, the public often thinks of cartoonish art of bored apes, but industry-specific use cases are still moving forward. There are still hazy logistics when it comes to legality around medical records, but blockchain offers an intriguing way forward as the world looks to secure health data.
Picture of Health
While its DNA NFT marketplace is still in the works, HLTH.network already has launched HLTH RUN a blockchain-based mobile app that rewards people for leading active and healthier lives.
“People are incentivized, as they can earn cryptocurrency by moving, jogging or walking, and they can use those tokens for health products and services,” Schumacher said. “This helps against the typical Western-style diseases.”
Other companies are leveraging data from the blockchain to create personalized healthcare plans that can improve patients’ wellbeing and, ultimately, save lives.
“Blockchain lets us build these longitudinal profiles that can feed [AI-based] intelligence engines … or build customized engagement models,” Ricotta said.
“We can handle data from lots of sources – IoT devices, medical records and directly from therapeutic devices themselves. There’s also the ability to create what we call health pathways for customers that are so personalized that we can help the organization and the person to connect at a different level.”
With its unique attributes, blockchain may even be primed to address a longstanding challenge within the healthcare space: how to facilitate the seamless sharing of private and highly regulated healthcare data.
Smart contracts and the ability to approve users are two trademarks of this burgeoning technology that could be part of the solution. In addition, the blockchain itself could be used to catalog and track actions from different doctors, helping to reduce dangerous and sometimes fatal errors.
“I think the main thing would be breaking down data silos,” Schumacher said.
“All over the planet, humanity as a whole sits on absolutely huge masses of data, which is siloed, unused and wasted. We need to connect this data. We have to make it actionable, findable and incentivize private individuals, researchers and patients to share their data in a safe way.”
The Future is Now
The opportunities are seemingly endless as industry-specific interest in blockchain technology continues to boom.
“One of the good things that COVID did was it really accelerated the digital transformation of the health space by probably seven to 10 years,” Ricotta said. “There's now a lot more of a focus on a digital-first kind of approach.”
Ricotta sees blockchain’s ability to help healthcare providers tighten data security, better manage spending and more easily embrace new innovations. This enables more data to be generated and used for personalized healthcare that accesses the latest medical research, including genomics.
According to Business Wire 2023 market reports, blockchain will continue to disrupt the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. Pharmaceutical companies are investing in blockchain platforms to aid in drug development, record management, vaccine distributions, drug supply chain management and intellectual property applications. It’s one of the many IT trends to look for in 2023.
Furthermore, people can own and monetize their health data or be rewarded for healthy lifestyle choices.
“We can really change how healthcare is done,” Schumacher concluded.
“I see a future where people can manage their own health, their own data and make it actionable. For example, combining their genetic data with data they collect in real time. AI algorithms can crunch this data and give real-time feedback that helps you stay healthy and live much longer.”
This is an updated version of the original article published on May 5, 2022.
Chase Guttman is a technology writer. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, Emmy-winning drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at chaseguttman.com or @chaseguttman.
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