If you live in the United States, you know how hard it is to keep control of your healthcare information. Whether it’s Obamacare, Trumpcare, or Medicare, insurers and not patients are providers’ customers. The descriptions of the services you get are opaque to anyone but an insurance adjuster. Regulations like HIPAA are supposed to protect your privacy, but too often they “protect” it from your own access and control.
What if it were possible to bring all your healthcare information into one place and let you decide how to use it? Wouldn’t that give you more options and a greater sense of control over your own life? The good news is that the technology exists and people are working on making it a practical reality.
Blockchains for healthcare info
What you need is a system that doesn’t make you dependent on one repository yet is safe from tampering and loss. You need one that you control and can let others access as you choose. A blockchain meets these requirements. It’s distributed and secure. People can add information in a way that demonstrates it’s from them and hasn’t been altered.
There’s an issue it has to address, though. Putting personal medical information directly on a public blockchain won’t do. It’s visible to everyone. Is there a way to combine the openness of the blockchain with the privacy that medical records require?
MedRec demonstrates a viable approach
A proof of concept called MedRec shows one way to do this. It sets up an Ethereum-based blockchain in which people can store information relating to their healthcare history. Limited trial runs have been encouraging. What they store isn’t the information itself but smart contracts for accessing the information from providers’ data stores. The information includes a cryptographic hash of the record, to ascertain that the information hasn’t changed since the owner accepted it.
Note that the word here is “owner,” not “patient.” “Patient” suggests a subordinate relationship to the provider, not to mention what you’ve always had to be when asking for information. The information is yours, held in trust by the providers you’ve dealt with.
This way there isn’t any single, massive repository with everyone’s information. A repository like that would be an irresistible target for people trying to steal personal data. On the other hand, it means a lot of interoperability issues to be resolved. Medical offices use a variety of systems for storing electronic health records (EHRs), and a real-world blockchain system will have to talk to as many of them as possible.
The existence of a blockchain system like MedRec will encourage the developers of these systems to standardize their APIs, so that their products will be blockchain-friendly. Other developers will create user-friendly interfaces so that people can access and forward their information from a desktop computer or phone.
Information can still go away, of course. An office could shut down and take all its records offline. Redundancy is the solution to that. When you send your records to a new provider, they can keep a copy. Information repositories, independent of any healthcare system, may spring up to offer reliable, blockchain-compatible storage of your health records.
Taking control back
With a MedRec-like system, you’ll win control of your health information back from providers and insurers. You’ll be able to:
- Work through a single interface, instead of having to coax the information out of each provider.
- Get the data you need more quickly.
- Reduce the information management burden on your healthcare providers.
- View and learn from your own information.
- Make better choices for your life.
- Designate another person to access your records in an emergency.
Your healthcare information is largely out of your own control right now, largely because of clumsy efforts to “help” and “protect” you. Blockchain technology can and will change that. Control of the information will return to where it belongs, in the hands of the individual.