(with apologies to Lord Alfred Douglas for the misquote)
A true revolution in record-keeping is in the making with real benefits for all humankind. And that is not to overstate the case.
The media are currently raving (and that's the appropriate verb) about a variety of cryptocurrencies. These valueless entities are hiding the really useful technical concept upon which they depend - the blockchain. In this post, we hope to whet your appetite to learn more about the benefits the blockchain can provide.
Potential Impact of Blockchain Use on the Medical Industry
As Bitcoin, the best known among the cryptocurrencies that use blockchain technology is something of a dirty word, the potential of distributed ledgers for doing good doesn't get a hearing. Potential applications are only now being imagined.
For example, the potential for positive effects on human health are myriad and collectively are staggeringly positive. Imagine having instant access to your health data in complete detail from the moment of your birth onwards. Tailoring medical interventions for unique effectiveness and avoiding side-effects would become routine. And we're talking years, not decades before this happens.
What is Blockchain?
Let's begin with the definition of blockchain. Originally spelt as 'block chain', blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography.
In June 2017 the Economist had an article 'Governments may be big backers of the blockchain' where the interest of governments rather than individuals in blockchain technology was explored. The article is well worth reading and from it comes the following explanation of the blockchain concept.
The blockchain and similar distributed ledgers are databases that are not maintained by a single entity, such as a bank or government agency, but collectively by a number of their users.
All changes are encrypted in such a way that they cannot be altered or deleted without leaving a record of the data’s earlier state. In theory, all sorts of information, from birth records to business transactions, can be baked into a blockchain, creating permanent and secure records which cannot be tampered with, for instance by corrupt officials.
How does Blockchain Work?
The diagram at the top of the page is a good illustration of how the blockchain works. The database is distributed over a number of nodes connected in a network to all the, let's call them 'registered users'
No one node has all the data. Data at a node is mirrored at other nodes so that, were one node to drop out, another seamlessly restores the database.
All data is encrypted. All transactions are encrypted. The registered users effectively control access to the system - who can have access, when they can have access, etc.
6 Possible Applications of Blockchain Technology
A few minutes of thought brought six ideal applications for blockchain technology to mind, namely:
- Personal Medical Records: Once formatting standards are set - an ISO Standard would seem obvious - one could, from a small beginning, accumulate medical histories and have it in the personal control of patients using the equivalent of a bank card.
The data is not held on the card, but access to it is controlled by the card. And when you wish to share your complete medical history with a medical professional, at home or abroad, simply present the card.
- Quality Control Records: Applications here already exist on a limited scale. A manufacturing company can share finished product quality control records, the identity of the analysts involved, the identity of the person authorising product release, the calibration control system detail confirming the suitability, accuracy, etc. of monitoring and measuring devices used, and so on. No exchange of emails or messages is involved as the information is available to all legitimate users as and when required.
- Traceability Records: From 'farm to fork' traceability for food products, a fundamental requirement of food safety management systems, becomes facile as does the registration/de-registration of new providers and other users. Component history for medical device components is another obvious application where the instant availability of comprehensive data could save lives in the event of product recalls.
- Medical Device Unique IDs: Not only the identity of medical devices but all the other data that FDA and European Medical Device Regulations now require be maintained would be facilitated by a blockchain - not only the upload of the data but rapid access to up-to-date, accurate information on an ongoing basis.
- Safety Data Sheets (MSDS, if you prefer): Imagine never again having to go chasing an up-to-date SDS, or worry about whether what you have is up-to-date? Current SDS at point of use at every work station worldwide. That must reduce injuries and lives lost.
- Register of ISO Certification: A worldwide database is being actively developed to have publicly available a current register of all accredited certifications issued. This IAF Database of Accredited Certificates will certainly help eliminate certification mills.
And I'm sure you can think of many more yourself!
Challenges of Using Blockchain Technology
The computing power required to update a blockchain is great and has been a severely limiting factor in relation to the number of Bitcoins issued, for example, and the time taken to record Bitcoin transactions.
So, transaction-hungry applications (e.g. to provide instantaneous access to your bank balance) are likely to be some time off. Applications requiring, say, a daily update can be handled by currently available technology.
How Will the Blockchain Services be Provided
A big investment in infrastructure will be required when blockchain 'takes off' and it would seem likely that 'back office' aspects will be covered by today's cloud service providers. Amazon, Google and Microsoft (Sharepoint) are the likely main players and already one reads of Edge Computing and computing on the edge in this regard.
'Front office' aspects will be handled by a myriad of smaller organizations most of which don't exist as yet. Expect crowdfunding to come into play here.
Warning Before You Dabble with Blockchain and Cryptocurrency
If there's one thing the history of high-tech has taught us over recent decades, it is that early developers and early adopters of new technologies get 'burned'. The bubble that is (was?) Bitcoin is bursting.
There will be many other bubbles across multiple economic sectors before some maturity comes to the blockchain marketplace. Many applications will simply fail to get adopted in significant numbers. But there will be some big winners.
Expect governments to become apoplectic when they realise they cannot control this thing. They can't tax it - they can't shut it down - they can't monitor it. There is, of course, the potential for evil but that is true of most technologies.
It will be interesting to watch blockchain applications being adopted by business and state organizations and integrated into their ISO 27001 Information Security Management. I must say that I find the prospects here exciting and I expect some paradigm shifts (remember them?).
Note: Originally published in Jan 2018; revised and updated in May 2021.