How the healthcare industry can benefit from blockchain

18 May 2017

The Clinisent team. Image: Clinisent TM/LinkedIn

TechWatch’s Emily McDaid spoke to the CEO of Clinisent to discuss the presence of blockchain in the healthcare industry.

Clinisent, a healthcare start-up located on Belfast’s Waring Street, has raised a total of £1.65m in the last 18 months. Investors saw the company’s promise as one of the few to be focused on blockchain in health.

Aiming to revolutionise the use of digital tools in the management of healthcare, Clinisent is examining the innovative potential of blockchain.

Founder and CEO, Andrew Cuthbert, is challenging the status quo in his market. He said: “Healthcare is perhaps the last industry people would think the blockchain should be applied. In general, technology adoption tends to be slower in the healthcare industry, and we believe we can change that.”

One of the areas that Clinisent is trying to transform is the secure flow of health information between providers and patients. The company reported that 100m patient records are soon to be processed by their system.

“A classic argument for the deployment of blockchain might be medical tourism,” said Cuthbert.

“Many regions of the world are known for attracting medical tourists who travel for procedures, for example, hip replacements. The doctor back in the patient’s home country needs to access the clinical information or the health record after the replacement, yet there are no inter-jurisdictional digital solutions that hold data in an effective way across borders. Our product fills this requirement and does so securely.”

I wondered whether this was about empowering the patient to have more control over their own information. Are there privacy implications to letting people hold their own medical notes?

“Data needs to be open and yet anonymous. Data like personal health records needs to be visible to the right people and invisible to others who might have malicious purposes,” said Cuthbert.


Image: Clinisent

How does blockchain factor into this?

“Public blockchains like Ethereum and bitcoin are a permanent record. We know data in the chain is accurate, we know who supplied it and which healthcare provider originated the information. We just have to be careful of size and cost – both important factors when identifying how a blockchain solution might be deployed,” Cuthbert explained.

In some respects, blockchain offers greater transparency, so I wondered how this affects such a sensitive area as health records.

“The lack of anonymity has historically been a major sticking point for healthcare. Private healthcare networks are jurisdictionally controlled. Some reconciliation needs to happen with that data across territories,” he said.

I asked him to define other use cases for blockchain in healthcare, beyond medical tourism.

“Imagine a scenario where an individual visits A&E within a closed private market, but they have a DNR (do not resuscitate) as a wish,” said Cuthbert. “The patient has no family present, and, being unconscious, has no one to voice their wishes. The blockchain lets us store related advanced care planning data in a way that could be organisationally independent, in theory.”

He continued: “We’ve worked in this area as a key use case and deployed our technology as part of a hackathon on a project entitled ‘Clear Call’. Unfortunately, we need to evolve new methods of accessing the chain for the non-technical person, before the use of the technology in this case becomes real.”

If blockchain is to transform healthcare, who would be the winners and losers?

Cuthbert said: “Those who benefit from high processing costs, the intermediaries – of whom there are plenty – would suffer. For instance, I’d expect HMOs to suffer – those who manage payments for insurance companies. As processing costs dramatically reduce, and the cost of analysis would decrease as information became easier to validate, so margins would decrease.”

He continued: “According to the World Health Organisation, Americans spend $8,362 per capita on healthcare annually, where Brits spend $3,480. In my opinion, that’s mainly due to the number of intermediaries existing in the payment structures. I believe that HMOs would have to completely change their business models in a world of blockchain. That’s why many of them have called blockchain untested and unsafe.”

This has been an interesting perspective to see that sometimes, there are barriers to innovation beyond the technical.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland