Estonia prescribes blockchain for healthcare data security
16 March 2017
Estonia has long been known as one of the most digitally advanced countries in Europe. And now its government is putting ground-breaking blockchain technology to use in securing its citizens’ medical data. The country’s eHealth Authority has signed a deal with Guardtime, a blockchain pioneer, to secure the health records of over a million Estonians.
Blockchain has the potential to revolutionise data security. And, while it employs advanced data architecture and cutting-edge cryptographic technologies, at its core is a very simple idea. That is, that rather than storing and administrating data in a single database, multiple copies of the same data are synchronised in ledgers shared across a network of users.
Blockchain is in this way a ‘distributed ledger’. And when changes are made in one copy of a distributed ledger, each other copy held in every other location is simultaneously updated. The network as a whole polices and guarantees the validity of the data.
This has a number of powerful applications in healthcare. First, health records can be stored securely in a ledger on which all participants (health professionals, patients, insurers) can rely. Doctors, surgeons, pharmacists and other medical professionals all have instant access to an agreed set of data about a patient. This means better data for better care in acute, life-threatening situations, and for the treatment of chronic longer-term conditions.
Second, a ledger of secure, validated data has the potential to be shared, subject to strict privacy limitations, with insurers and state agencies to facilitate fast and efficient transactions across government and with the private sector. Imagine, for example, if the relevant part of your validated medical record could be accessed instantly by your nation’s driver licensing agency to ensure your fitness to drive. Or imagine the possibilities for sharing medical data across borders if you’re taken ill and require treatment abroad.
Forward-thinking countries like Estonia are already turning these ideas into reality. In 2015, over 80,000 medical certificates were forwarded electronically to its Road Administration Agency to facilitate driving licence renewals. And in 2016 the country signed a joint declaration with Finland looking at automatic cross-border data exchange for social insurance benefits and digital prescriptions.
But perhaps the most transformative effect of this kind of technology is on the patient, who is, after all, rightly at the centre of any healthcare system. Blockchain technologies can offer individual citizens for the first time a fully transparent and accurate view of their medical data. No state agency, private sector organisation, or indeed any malicious hacker, can change the record without being visible to the whole network, including the patient, in real time.
The effect on individual empowerment, on medical transparency, and on the healthcare profession’s duty of candour with its patients, is potentially revolutionary. Here, too, Estonia is ahead of the game. Its Patient Portal gives citizens access to medical documents, referral responses, prescriptions, and insurance information. Individuals can also use the Portal to declare their intentions regarding blood transfusions and organ donation.
Estonia is leading the way in the blockchain revolution. It’s showing how it can ensure data security, facilitate better healthcare and more efficient transactions, and empower patients. Other nations should take note.