More and more health innovators are betting on blockchain to radically change health care delivery in the not too distant future. Why is that and are the odds in their favor?

For people working in the life sciences sector these are exciting times. Scientists and health care companies are finding new ways to treat diseases and revolutionize medicine at an accelerating pace. We are now able to print organs and cut-and-paste someone’s DNA. It seems like science fiction has never been so close to reality......until you visit your doctor or find yourself in the hospital and realize that you are sitting in the same waiting room filling in the same paperwork as your parents and grandparents did before you.

We may be stepping into a New Age of Medicine from a technological point of view, but from an organizational point of view health care has not changed much. Yes, some of us use health care apps and doctors have access to better technology, but the underlying system of health care delivery has remained unchanged for decades. This is where blockchain, or Distributed Ledger Technology comes in, a digital technology that uses cryptography to enable decentralized information and value exchange allowing consumers and suppliers to connect directly, removing the need for a third party to authorize, validate and oversee transactions. In other words, blockchain can simplify the customer experience in getting care. Imagine: no more time and energy wasted on paperwork and trying to find your way through the bureaucratic maze of hospitals, doctors and health insurers.

While a technology that is essentially a data management tool may not look like something that will revolutionize the health care sector, it may just be the disruption the health care sector needs: a system that is completely integrated and without paperwork to make health care systems more patient-centric and sustainable. In theory blockchain can enable us to instantly make health care related transactions, save costs through reduction of administration, fraud and waste and thereby free up more resources for treating patients.

This all sounds great, but a lot needs to fall in place to make this a reality. First of all there are a number of technological requirements, including a complete roll-out of cloud computing, full digitalization of health care data and international agreements on blockchain standards.

Arguably even more challenging will be the need to make necessary behavioural and structural changes in the health care sector. A whole sector that is known for its ‘resistance to change’ would need to understand, commit to and follow a new system and the right incentives would need to be put in place to ensure the focus remains on long term outcomes (establishing doctor-patient relationships) rather than short term outputs (quick transactions). This is especially challenging in Europe where health care systems differ between and even within countries.

To overcome these barriers more political leadership on key elements of blockchain is needed, in particular on storage and interoperability standards. Efforts to take down the technological, behavioral and structural barriers should start as soon as possible and the discussion needs to be brought from the innovators and early adopters to the traditionally more laggardly policymakers and health care professionals.

Blockchain seems like a good bet, but the stakes are high in terms of investment and disruption so health innovators will need to keep their calm. Financial Technology (FinTech) is generally seen as a testbed for the technology and even there significant hurdles still need to be overcome to make it mainstream.

While FinTech and health care each face their own challenges, both share the need for an informed and supportive policy environment to move forward. However, despite the enthusiasm of a growing group of people, surprisingly few people actually know what blockchain is. People first need to become aware of what is it they need to talk about.

There is a need to build awareness and understanding of blockchain among a wider group of policymakers and stakeholders. Not just about its potential, but also about its implications in terms of safety, governance, security and privacy. This is especially important for health care, where making the right transactions can literally be a matter of life or death.

A future where managing your health is as easy and as quick as ordering an Uber can be a dream or a nightmare, depending on how it is designed and regulated.

daniel benjamens
Daniel Benjamens

Daniel Benjamens is an associate director in APCO Worldwide’s Brussels office, working primarily for the health care and technology practices. Read More