This isn’t some cheap dose of “Little House on the Prairie” nostalgia, but rather a shot of truth: We are a long way from small-town doctors treating patients for decades and lifetimes — after treating their parents, and perhaps even grandparents as well. Not only that, but healthcare is infinitely more complicated than it was in the 19th-century Doc Baker days — thanks to scientific advances and the collection, analysis and use of sophisticated patient data.
That may be obvious, but it serves as a decent reminder that healthcare — among the biggest industries in the world, and certainly one of the most vital — has become a process in which an extremely educated person treats an endless line of strangers, with all that data serving to differentiate one patient from another.
That reality, of course, places a premium on the accuracy of that data, as well as efficient access to it and the secure storage of all that deeply personal information. Proper care, consumer and insurance payments flow, and fraud prevention all depend on those factors.
That leads us to the latest discussion about the potential role that blockchain can play in healthcare data. This time, as shown in a new PYMNTS interview between Karen Webster and Chrissa McFarlane, founder and CEO of cybersecurity healthcare data solution firm Patientory, the promise of blockchain is tied to the use of iris biometrics, with both of those fledging technologies combining to bring new data and authentication capabilities to healthcare systems.
The idea, essentially, is to reduce friction — one of the main ideals in this phase of the digital era — in healthcare data, those flows of information between patients and healthcare systems, according to McFarlane. However, along with the promise of blockchain and biometrics working together toward that goal, there remain significant challenges, as well as the eventual need to gain general regulatory understanding and buy-in for more use of blockchain in the healthcare system.
“We want to show success with pilots and integrations with customers,” including large healthcare systems, McFarlane told Webster. “Then, regulators can see tangible use cases” that prove the appeal of blockchain in the healthcare space.
Before diving into the particular Patientory idea (one that serves as a solid, if general, reflection of the emerging trends in healthcare), let’s not get too far ahead.
Blockchain has become one of the hottest topics in payments, commerce and digital security over the last few years. So have biometrics. Yet, when it comes to the use of blockchain in healthcare, and, indeed, the deployment of iris biometric authentication technology, talk does (and should) focus on the longer term — say, three, five or more years down the road.
That makes sense, of course: Healthcare is so massive, and attached to multiple legacy systems, that major changes tend to come after years or decades of consideration, experimentation, pilots and deployments.
Better Patient ID
During the PYMNTS discussion, McFarlane told Webster of how Patientory is working with IrisGuard, an iris-recognition solutions company, to provide more accurate and secure patient identity processes. The core problem those two companies want to solve is explained by a Pew Research Center statistic: 20 percent of patient records are not matched accurately within the same healthcare system. That failure of efficiency and accuracy can increase healthcare costs and create safety risks for patients.
Combining relatively high-level biometrics and blockchain could provide an antidote to that (please excuse all the obvious puns).
The ongoing collaboration between the two companies focuses on providing patients with private-key access to their heath data via blockchain and its decentralized nodes. Iris recognition then provides an extra layer of authentication and security atop the blockchain.
Working together, the two technologies — the IrisGuard tool integrates into Patientory software — can authenticate and authorize patient identification within three seconds. The process is scalable and portable (ask any doctor about the typical hassle of getting patient data from other healthcare systems or medical offices).
Additionally, the security involved offers a stronger defense for pharmaceutical and insurance providers by making it more difficult for criminals to impersonate legitimate patients. McFarlane said the technology also meets HIPAA standards, those regulations that govern the privacy of medical information.
As McFarlane described it, “your iris [data] is linked to your private key, and [the process] only works with your registered retina.”
Private Key Concerns
Of course, that raises the question of how an individual patient protects that private key, a code that can run up to 25 characters. Do they write it down? Do they store it in a safe deposit box? Those were among the questions raised in a tongue-in-cheek manner, though they were attached to serious issues. Webster raised the obvious concern: “Are patients responsible enough to be given a private key?”
McFarlane acknowledged that theft and misuse of private keys could present grave risks to healthcare organizations, but said she could imagine the rise of third-party services that have the capabilities to protect those digital codes. Insurance firms might also get involved, she added. That said, the overall trend — not just in healthcare, but in daily consumer life and other areas — is for our physical selves to give way to our digital personas. That will continue to play out in healthcare.
“Why not digitize ourselves personally” when it comes to healthcare, she asked. Such a comment verges on the abstract and philosophical (as befits the state of transformation in the industry), but the growing interest of healthcare executives in blockchain and associated technologies is factual reality, according to McFarlane.
Consider this: Until recently, the general infrastructure tied to healthcare was not ready for blockchain, but that is changing. “They were way over their heads three years ago,” she said, referring to blockchain discussions with those executives. “Now, it’s a hot topic. Every CEO wants to know more.”
Still, such efforts will take years to reach a tipping point, which McFarlane described as “adoption on the consumer side, and also the enterprise side.” No matter what, when historians of the healthcare industry write their summaries decades from now on how we got to there from here, there is little doubt that these types of efforts will receive their due attention.