Health IT, Pharma

Merck is exploring applications for the blockchain within healthcare

The underpinning technology for crypto-currencies, the blockchain, could be deployed by the healthcare industry for myriad uses, an idea batted around during a fireside chat with Merck’s Nishan Kulatilaka at the MedCity CONVERGE conference in Philadelphia this week.

Chris Seper of EW Scripps and Nishan Kulatilaka of Merck

Chris Seper of EW Scripps and Nishan Kulatilaka of Merck, MedCity CONVERGE 2016

Bitcoin acolytes, rejoice. The blockchain could soon be hitting the healthcare industry. Let’s get weird.

Yes, it just so happens that crypto-currencies are more than the payment tools of ransomware hackers. The underpinning technology, the blockchain, could actually be deployed by the healthcare industry for myriad uses, an idea that was batted around during a fireside chat with Merck’s Nishan Kulatilaka at the MedCity CONVERGE conference in Philadelphia this week.

“The blockchain is a distributed system where every node has a ledger of everything that happens. You get a new level of transparency where you can verify what happened,” said Kulatilaka, an associate director of product management and applied technology at the pharmaceutical giant.

In healthcare, something like the blockchain could be used in setting up vaccine registries or transactional histories for patients. During clinical trials, the blockchain could be used to share blood test information; for, say, five different trials, only one blood test would then be needed. The blockchain could also be paired with a patient’s current electronic medical record to provide a new level of data integrity and interoperability, meaning patient data could be shared across organizations and people without compromising the security of the information that’s stored.

“There’s something that’s really cool about having your record follow you wherever you go without needing that data on you at all times. … You’re no longer bound to your hospital system,” Kulatilaka said.

Part of what Merck’s applied technology group is now exploring are those potential applications for the blockchain within the healthcare field. After the financial services sector, Kulatilaka said, healthcare could potentially be the second-biggest industry to adopt blockchain technology. But don’t look for the industry to make any big moves over the next year. A “level of boldness” is needed to make sea changes in healthcare, as Kulatilaka pointed out, but blockchain technology will be implemented more and more over the next five years.

“It’s a system that best works when you have a lot of different actors in the network, pushing the technology, using the technology,” he said. “But you’re seeing a lot of pressure being put on healthcare.”