Thanks to incredible increases in the value of cryptocurrencies—in the case of Bitcoins, up to 1,000 percent— the underlying blockchain technology is now a familiar expression even to less tech-savvy people. Using the blockchain, not just alternative financial centers, but any kind of exchanges can be built. For example, an exchange for trading in healthcare data. Here, it is also about money, but fortunately, about money for those generating data—so potentially for every one of us.
Behind this approach stands the HIT (Health Information Traceability) Foundation in Switzerland and its Chairman, Dr Eberhard Scheuer. In an interview with VISUS VIEW, he explained the underlying concept and why such a market place is only becoming attractive as a result of using blockchain technology.
Dr Scheuer, what makes blockchain technology attractive to the healthcare market and in which contexts?
To anticipate your question directly, the blockchain is not suitable for the retention of medical data. The sheer quantity of data would be too huge. The energy consumption required to operate the Bitcoin blockchain, for example, is equivalent to that for the whole of Serbia. And only minimal data about transactions are deposited here – without CT scans. But still the technology is interesting, because it offers three huge advantages. Incorruptible and robust, it offers transparency despite being anonymous, and can be operated decentrally. It therefore provides the perfect platform for digital transactions. One disadvantage of digital data though is that it can be endlessly copied and also manipulated. That doesn't happen with blockchains, because at any given time it is clear whether a transaction has ever been triggered. This is why it is particularly attractive, for example, for clinical research. Here are quite a few cases of fraud based on data manipulation which would be impossible with the blockchain. However, smart contracts offer the greatest potential. One example would be if A's health insurance company were to offer him a 10 percent discount on insurance if he lost 22 pounds. If he achieves that and a physician confirms that he has met this condition, this automatically renders the contract valid. Logistics operations can also be dealt with in this way.
What exactly is the HIT foundation's approach now and who is the market place of interest to?
The initial idea of the platform was the knowledge that previous central solutions have not been accepted. Why? Because there are no incentives for data providers to become involved in a data deal and digitize healthcare data.
We're now solving this dilemma. Put simply, we're building a market place in which healthcare data can be traded for exchange 'tokens' that is comparable to platforms on which flats or car use are temporarily traded. But with the big difference that in our case, no intermediary company is acting as a central entity. There is a blockchain instead with all its advantages of anonymity, incorruptibility, and the simple opportunity to establish and redeem contractual content in an automated way.
One example of a use for this platform might be where a pharmaceutical company is seeking diabetics yielding specific data so it can develop a new product to lower blood sugar. It is prepared to spend a particular number of tokens on each individual data supplier to achieve this goal. It therefore places an advertisement in the market place and asks if any registered users with the relevant profile are prepared to make their data available for that number of tokens. Data providers remain anonymous, of course. This decentalized token system is only possible with the blockchain, which makes data disclosure attractive for the very first time.
That sounds a bit abstract. What can you do with a token like this and what is its value?
The value of a token will vary, as it does with Bitcoin. Smart contracts are based on a specific current market value and the data provider decides if they are going to exchange the token for real money or are hoping for an increase in value, or even if they are going to use it to buy other healthcare services, for example, a second opinion. Contributions traded here for a core data set may not represent assets for people in strong economies, but they are already very valuable in other parts of the world. And ultimately, the value also depends on the data set in question and its value to those needing the data.
Which companies are so very interested in data that they are prepared to get involved in deals like this?
Potentially, a great many! The alternatives to this would be, for example, an expensive market research which companies would have to program apps and then provide training for and much more. One data set for a post-market surveillance study by a pharmaceutical company could quickly cost more than 470 US dollars. and to obtain valid results, you would need thousands of data sets like this. The financial incentive here is clear. But other healthcare actors also have a great interest in, for example, evaluating a treatment procedure and the outcome of a treatment. That becomes interesting when remuneration for medical services is linked to success.
And then it is just about extracting healthcare data from its silos and centralizing it for specific issues. The only person entitled to do that is the patient/person to whom the data belongs. However, to do this the patient/person must first of all possess the data – for example, data from their blood pressure monitor or fitness watch. For us, a huge number of strategic partners can therefore be considered, such as call centers, hospital chains, pharmacies, or gadget manufacturers. How are they financed? Does it cost money to use the platform? No, the platform is free. But to develop it, we need capital and we acquire that from selling our currency, the tokens – and besides, it's a popular financing method of raising funds for start-ups. Initially, we are giving out a billion tokens to be sold in a coin offering.