Is blockchain a cure for healthcare data breaches?

Healthcare maintained its unfortunate status as the most-targeted industry last year.
29 January 2020

Innovation is ingrained in. the healthcare sector. Source: Shutterstock 

After an unwanted hospital visit, the last thing you’ll probably expect to worry about is that your personal data may be at risk, but that risk is an unfortunate reality today. 

More than one in ten healthcare providers have suffered a breach since 2016, with the sector maintaining its status as the most-targeted industry last year. 

In 2017, the notorious WannaCry ransomware attack infected more than 300,000 machines in 150 countries. Up to 80 National Health Service hospitals in Britain suffered a massive blow and were forced to divert patients after GPs and hospitals were unable to access medical records.

The impact is still widely discussed today and hospitals are urged to strengthen their cybersecurity systems. 

Last December, Canadian testing giant LifeLabs discovered unauthorized access in their systems and discovered 15 million patients’ data had been compromised, leading to breach victims filing several lawsuits. 

Data breaches don’t just affect people’s confidence in hospitals’ security systems, but can also throw shade on the wider industry’s handling of data

The healthcare sector is in a difficult position: as it strives to deliver more efficient services through digital transformation, it can open itself up to potentially devastating attacks that shatter patients’ trust.

Modern problems require modern solutions and the industry is increasingly focused on how it can employ new technology to bolster its defences.

Is blockchain a solution?

Blockchain experimentation is rife across almost every industry and use case imaginable, and with the data security situation in the healthcare sector bleak, the industry is exploring how the distributed ledger technology (DLT) could add layers of protection and efficiency, as more sensitive data must be handled day-to-day.  

One such example is Taipei Medical University Hospital (TMUH), which launched an online healthcare platform powered by blockchain technology to improve record-keeping among hospitals and clinics across the country. 

The Healthcare Blockchain Platform comprises more than 100 community clinics aimed to removing data silos inside and between organizations, instead, promoting the secure sharing of patient health records across institutions. 

Not only does blockchain enhance security, but it also helped reduce the long and tedious process of interhospital transfers, and simplifies the process of record-keeping.

Partnering medical institutions can now request and authorize a transfer of patient records with the use of smart contracts. Patients can also access complete medical records and seek referrals through a mobile app. 

The healthcare system in Canada has been one of the worse hit in the last year. With 19 million patient records compromised within eight months, securing a solution is vital.

Canada’s University Health Network (UHN) last year deployed a blockchain solution aimed at handing patients more control over their health data. The new model allows authorized users to access health data through secure and transparent methods based on individual consent.

Since consent directives stored on blockchain are immutable, patients can be assured that their intentions are accurately and consistently communicated throughout the entire ecosystem, granting patients more control and power over the way data is handled. 

Though blockchain solutions have the potential to tie up loose ends in the healthcare system, like all blockchain trials and initiatives, challenges in adoption and implementation remain. 

Data standardization and volume brings hurdles in unified implementation, especially in nation-wide networks such as in Taipei. The amount of data stored in the digital ledger could affect its performance, free-form submission of data, such as doctor notes for example, can slow down transactions.  

On the other hand, blockchain can operate effectively with a variety of data formats such as medical records, demographic information, graphs, and service information, so data standardization should be placed at the forefront during implementation. 

Another consideration for healthcare systems embracing DLT is the cost. To date, there isn’t a clear figure for a blockchain-based solution, but the technology’s open-source and distributed nature is speculated to be lower than traditional data management – although, many organizations would be hesitant to take a risk on hard-up budgets. 

Blockchain trials represent just one technology that could provide a boon to healthcare systems’ advancement in the coming years. Although there are challenges, the sector is one that is built on experimentation and pushing technological boundaries.

Helping to bring efficiency, transparency and security blockchain is certainly worthy of exploration, as demonstrated by industry members and partnering tech researchers.

MIT Media Lab developed an open-source prototype called MedRec that fully decentralizes access rights to healthcare data. MedRec adopts blockchain smart contracts to support a decentralized content-management system and automatically tracks parties with access to medical records. 

By doing so, the open-sourced system also diminishes the risk of a central target and represents an additional layer of defense during cyberattacks.