Blockchain will revolutionize healthcare — Just not any time soon

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Over the past decade, blockchain has surpassed the hype realm into a real transformative solution for industries. Several companies are investing billions of dollars on the network; it topped LinkedIn’s list of in-demand hard skills in 2020, and articles about its potential are now littered on every finance blog. Ask those who had experienced the early internet days, and they will certainly have a lot to tell you about the feeling of deja vu that has diffused the tech space.

Mainstream maximalist circles have touted blockchain as the magic solution for many industries — healthcare probably being the neediest. Forbes’ report revealed that up to 112 million healthcare data records were either stolen, lost or compromised in 2015. While there’s no telling how many wrecks this has caused, healthcare data is delicate, and every solution must be examined carefully.

Of course, blockchain’s potentials could unlock a different side to medicine and bring solutions to age-long problems in the profession. On the other hand, a lack of proper understanding of the pitfalls could massively hinder the potential locked up in this partnership. Let’s highlight four crucial drawbacks to adopting blockchain in healthcare.

Storage and data transfer

Stakeholders involved in healthcare — patients, payers, care providers and researchers — generate thousands of pieces of data every second, from background patient data to test results, images, medications and a host of other data that need to be constantly updated. Among all of this, confidentiality is at the very helm of medicine, and all health data must be carefully accounted for.

However, it is one thing to digitize health data, and another thing is to transfer tons of data to a publicly encrypted database. Dealing with different personnel and actual blockchain experts to transfer and update health data ironically leaves room for a massive data breach or improper documentation of health data. Besides that, the time required to arrange and update tons of health data systematically would be significantly alarming.

The blockchain trilemma

Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, coined the term “blockchain trilemma,” a term that describes the infeasibility of getting all three desirable properties of any blockchain-based use case — decentralization, security and scalability. In simpler terms, it is impossible to have all three components in one project. One has to be sacrificed for the other two. Considering blockchain is predicated (for the most part) on decentralization and security, it is quite glaring which one is the sacrificial lamb.

The degree of scalability dictates the capacity of any network and must be addressed before implementation. In an attempt to secure a blockchain network, the amount of data processed per second was limited by the developers. For blockchains exponentially growing, this has created a scalability problem as more people swarm the network. Poor blockchain scalability would mean healthcare stakeholders would be very limited in processing real-time data. Besides being unsuitable for emergency healthcare, the implication is that healthcare workers would have to do more with less.

Cost

In the long run, blockchain will ultimately save a lot of money for both patients and healthcare providers. For supply chains in pharmaceuticals, patient records and health insurance, healthcare costs will eventually be optimized. A BIS research suggests that blockchain would save up to $100 billion over an eight-year period.

However, blockchain’s early adoption in healthcare will certainly not come easy in terms of cost. The cost of building applications, reorientating stakeholders into a new system, security and maintenance is enormous. A blockchain network covering the entire United States healthcare system would cost hundreds of billions and would require patient investors and help from the government. However, optimal systems within a blockchain network can emerge with time and cut these potentially enormous fees.

Policies and regulations

Health data is highly sensitive, hence the strict regulations guiding healthcare professionals to do their job. Since the introduction of electronic health records, these regulations have continued to increase as health professionals seek to insulate themselves from medical malpractice.

The introduction of blockchain would be an entirely new and cumbersome method of handling health data; it would certainly go through rounds of policy reviews worldwide. Moreover, health professionals would be potentially exposed to thousands of lawsuits, and they might not be receptive to the technology.

This article was co-authored by Joshua Esan and Motolani Victor.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Joshua Esan is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He has worked with various companies and blogs since the blockchain revolution began.

Motolani Victor is an entrepreneur, investor and aspiring physician. He has always been passionate about healthcare and artificial intelligence and is now interested in how blockchain can bring revolution to the digitized world.