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Where blockchain in healthcare might actually make a difference

It’s almost too easy to dismiss the idea of blockchain in healthcare. The first major application of blockchain — Bitcoin – does feel kind of sketchy (all the currency that went “missing”) and the idea that patients will own their health records as long as they can hang on to long numeric keys seems ridiculous when most of us can’t even remember passwords we create.

At the American Medical Informatics Association meeting in San Francisco, blockchain in healthcare came up often during presentations. But even among a group of people looking for forward thinking ideas there was a tremendous amount of skepticism.

Amidst the doubters, Roger Boodoo, MD, a radiologist with the Defense Health Agency and an enthusiastic participant in a number of the blockchain financial exchanges, offered a vision that could improve patient engagement and ultimately all of healthcare.

For Boodoo, it comes down to the fact that blockchain is a way to create “programmable money” and that money can be used to incentivize patients to get health screens, cavities filled or even participate in medical research. “Only 4% of the people eligible for lung cancer screening actually get screened,” he explained. “We could offer incentives like tokens at the point of care and that would not violate anyone’s privacy.”

That’s just the beginning, in Boodoo’s view. “Dentacoin” could reward patients for getting cavities filled and for paying attention to dental health. Participants in clinical trials could be paid in a blockchain currency, and if the drug makes it to the market, the payment could represent a small percentage of the pharmaceutical maker’s profits.

Blockchain incentives could also help solve problems that simply require a lot of people to participate, Boodoo said, like the large numbers needed to train an AI in order to ensure it’s a reliable reader of xrays or MRIs. And it’s an obvious choice as a foolproof way to track organ donations.

While he acknowledged the hurdles, Boodoo challenged the audience to at least consider blockchain going forward. “Define a business problem that is not currently solved and identify a network of participants,” he said. “There are many failed abstracts but we are making progress thanks to education. Just brainstorm some use cases and lead the way.”

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