Do Public Health and Blockchain Belong Together?

If someone in your state contracts a perilous disease, which health organizations need to know? The Health Authority, Disease Control and Prevention Centers. These organizations must routinely share public health data so they can control the spread of a range of infectious diseases. As straightforward as this may sound, managing data at this scale is an extremely challenging process.

Blockchain is “the” technology that seemingly can solve this ordeal as it can be used to build real applications geared toward better public health surveillance. This calls for effective and efficient collaboration among peer organizations. Transfer of data from one peer to another in a secure, compliant and agile manner is key to this business model.

Blockchains, like those that underlie Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, are maintained by networks of computers—instead of a single trusted authority—that verify each transaction and record it in a virtually incorruptible, encrypted ledger shared by all the computers in the network.

Currently, individual organizations in the public health network share a complex hodgepodge of data usage agreements and government privacy rules dictate which members can access information and which ones can modify it. That slows things down.

Many additional, sometimes manual processes are needed to make sure the correct organization or person sent or received the right data, and that it was used correctly. A blockchain can automate these steps. Indeed, public health’s complicated peer-to-peer model for data sharing is very much what blockchain supports.

One example of a scenario in which a blockchain system could make a big difference is during a public health crisis. An app that local health workers can use to log information about patients and help determine which medications should be dispensed to whom. However, identifiable information can’t be stored in the cloud, and storing it in the approved way takes a lot more time. Blockchain could give a way to store and share that data much faster while complying with security and privacy laws.

Before any of these concepts can become real applications, though, technologists will have to work through some complicated questions. For instance, whose computers should maintain the ledger and who should have permission to read or modify data? How should identities, not only patient IDs but also the IDs of public health organizations, be managed on the blockchain?

It’s still early in the game!