Reformer Thoughts - Blockchain in the NHS

Reformer Thoughts brings together the opinions of leading experts from academia, business and government; frontline practitioners and public service users, to provide readers with valuable insight into the challenges shaping the policy debate. The series aims to give a platform to innovative ideas and facilitate an open and informed conversation about how we can improve public services.

This first Reformer Thoughts discusses the potential for blockchain in healthcare.

What is blockchain?

In reality, blockchain is just one type of distributed ledger technology (DLT) but has gradually become a catch-all term. DLT are databases that offer a way of decentralising information without compromising security or integrity i.e. the accuracy of the data. Distributed ledgers can either be unpermissioned or permissioned; unpermissioned ledgers, like the bitcoin model, are open for anyone to access, while permissioned ledgers require authorisation for users to hold a copy. A permissioned ledger for medical data, which patients could control, has the potential transform the relationship patients have with their healthcare data.

Implementation challenges and considerations

The contributors to this paper discuss the implementation challenges and to realising the potential for blockchain in healthcare, to warn against shoehorning a solution into a problem. This includes issues around security, trust, the implications of GDPR, as well as the interoperability of medical data, for which blockchain is not a silver bullet. 

The potential for blockchain in healthcare

Should we get this right, however, the potential for DLT in healthcare to address specific challenges in the NHS is promising. For patients, blockchain has the potential to enable citizens to become the control of their own personal healthcare records, with the ability to grant or deny permission for others to access it, whether they be clinicians, researchers or even commercial organisations. For doctors, a user-stored healthcare record could provide a fuller picture of a patient’s medical history, enabling them to make better informed decisions and improve patient outcomes. For researchers, DLT opens up opportunities for large-scale data collection by enabling patients to choose when to share, and even monetise, their personal healthcare data.

Should we get this right, however, the potential for DLT in healthcare to address specific challenges in the NHS is promising.