Roadblocks for blockchain in healthcare?

Chris Nerney
Chris Nerney, Contributing Writer |
Roadblocks for blockchain in healthcare?

The use of blockchain by healthcare organizations is being encouraged by powerful forces ranging from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But that doesn’t mean the healthcare industry will be embracing blockchain – a data structure that can be timed-stamped and signed using a private key as a way to prevent digital records tampering – fully or in the near future.

As Healthcare IT News Editor Mike Miliard writes, blockchain “faces a series of obstacles that healthcare organizations must overcome before it gains widespread implementation.”

Chief among the barriers is the industry’s notorious slow embrace of technology, new workflow processes, and data management practices. Sharon Klein, a partner in Pepper Hamilton’s health sciences department and chair of its privacy, security and data protection practice, tells Miliard, “It's a complicated web, in terms of the continuum of care. And it's a regulated web, with business associates and covered entities. So the question is how does blockchain fit into the regulatory scheme.”

The answer to that question is “not easily.” HIPAA, for example, is complicated legislation that includes rules governing data privacy, security, interoperability, and healthcare data clearinghouses. That’s a lot of needles to thread.

And while blockchain presumably is suited best to address healthcare interoperability and security issues, it likely won’t be an immediate panacea for the former. Instead, widespread interoperability may be a precondition of blockchain implementation in healthcare, says Joe Guagliardo, chair of Pepper Hamilton’s Blockchain Technology Group.

“Without solving the interoperability issue, I don't think we're going to get any of this implemented,” Gugliano tells Miliard. And while technology by definition is a crucial piece of the interoperability puzzle, Gugliano says, getting key stakeholders on the same page may be the larger challenge.

Prashant Natarajan, director of healthcare solutions at Oracle, says there must be a convincing value proposition for healthcare providers to adopt blockchain.

"What money can it save, what money can it generate, what can it do for the patient?” Natarajan says. “If it doesn't answer those questions, frankly, I think the broad use case doesn't matter."

Another potential barrier is cost.

"The question is not whether it works,” Natarajan says. “The question is who's going to pay for it? And blockchain is going to be expensive."