The one problem with IoT and connected health that no one will ever tell you about and why you should care before it’s too late
The Internet of Things, or a network to link practically all electronic devices together, is quickly coming to healthcare. Being able to constantly monitor everything from a patient’s heartbeat, to their insulin levels and beyond, will arm doctors with miles of valuable data. Just think, what if your heart doctor was able to get weekly reports from an EKG that you’re wearing daily. Even with the strictly regulated industry, the benefits IoT will provide both for quality of care and cost savings is immense. What no one is willing to admit though, is one very real concern: security.
To really get the benefits that IoT promises, systems will facilitate multiple devices connecting to one another, both on a fixed basis, and one where devices can hop from one network to another. Devices moving between networks, or coming into open access to their networks, creates an efficient system for collecting and sharing data, but opens up opportunities for bad actors.
Hacking, data theft, and malware are concerns to any network, but an open network built of many different types of devices from different manufactures coming and going, is all the more vulnerable. The solution to this lies in the technology that powers Bitcoin, which is blockchain.
How blockchain works is by giving every member of the network a copy of the database. So instead of having to connect to the server that is running and storing the data, you already have access to all the information you need. In medical devices, all of the medical data would be housed right in the device.
Now if you need to connect one device to another and pass along information, with blockchain you wouldn’t have to worry about the security of that transaction. To transfer data, or write to a device, all you would need are three parts to the transaction. Two parts are the transacting parties, and the third is everyone else on the network. It’s a bit like running your credit card (but much, much more secure).
If you’re purchasing something through a blockchain transaction, instead of needing the point of sale system running the transaction, the two parties create the transaction (called a block), then send it out to nodes (or computers dedicated to ‘mining’ blocks) on the network. If over half of the nodes on the network reply back and confirm the transaction is valid, the block is written to all chains on the network.
That transaction is encrypted and distributed through the whole network. Which means that transaction would be incredibly hard to tamper with, since everyone has a copy of it. All this information is stored anonymously, every blockchain is unique and isn’t tied directly to an identity, but rather an ID. So in the healthcare world, this would mean everyone using the network will be given a key. Even if someone wanted to hack the system, they wouldn’t be able to match up the IDs to individuals- another security strength. (For the sake of brevity, I’m choosing not to talk about Public or Private blockchains. I’ll cover that in another post.)
How would blockchain work in healthcare? Well, let’s say you have that wearable EKG monitor I mentioned earlier. You wear it daily to monitor your heart condition. Now you’re going in to visit a new doctor who wants to connect your monitor with their system. With blockchain, it would work very similar to our Barista example.
Your EKG monitor would receive a request from the doctor’s system, you would accept and the transaction would go out to the rest of the blockchain network. Once the transaction is verified; that your doctor is a trusted provider and that you exist on the network, access will be granted and the link between you and the provider will be made on the chain.
This is where is starts to get exciting. You’d be able to share with your provider the information that you’d like them to see perennially. In other words, you only want to share with your heart doctor your EKG monitor and your contact information- you can do that. No longer seeing that doctor? Remove their access to your chain. Because of the way blockchain is structured, you’d be able to add and remove access levels, and once the change is made, it’s logged across the network.
One last example, what if you went and got an MRI? You went in, gave the MRI provider access to your chain. Then instead of having to fax results to your doctor and to you, they can request to write it directly to your chain- eliminating the need for paperwork or CDs that you end up losing or forgetting to bring with you to your appointment with your doctor (this happened to me recently and I’m still salty about it).
People balk at the chatter around blockchain as another trendy technology that will fizzle out. While I agree in many cases, the technology is being over touted as a miracle cure all too frequently. However, I do think some specific use cases are perfect for it, particularly IoT devices. Just imagine, with this type of solution you’d have a log of all the treatment you’ve been given. No more need to explain to a provider what you’ve went through, for them to write it down on a piece of paper. You’d simply grant them access to some or all of your records. They’d be able to give access to every provider they see and instantly view all data related to that patient, from basic diagnostics to imaging, all the way to more intensive tests, or even the mundane like their address and contact information.
Think of the improvement in quality of care!
Now, plug all that patient data into a machine learning system that provides insights into behavior and health, and you’ll really be pushing the possibilities of improved patient care. But, I’ll save that and what makes blockchain more secure, for another day.
If you liked this post please leave me a comment or a few claps! If you have any questions, or are looking to build your own blockchain implementation, you can find me over at LinkedIn.