Security concerns and solutions regarding blockchain use in healthcare

August 18, 2020  |  Devin Morrissey

This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.

blockchain security

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The healthcare industry is transforming with the integration of ground-breaking technologies capable of storing patient records electronically. The shift to the digitization of systems makes a variety of healthcare solutions possible that never could have been imagined — but it also puts healthcare data at risk to hackers and cyber attacks.

In answer to this problem, blockchain technologies are emerging as a viable option for the storage and updating of electronic health records (EHRs). Blockchain software offers potential solutions to security risks as well as many other issues in managing patient data in healthcare.

So what’s holding the healthcare industry back from adopting blockchain tech? What security concerns does blockchain usage present? And how might blockchain solve these problems?

Here, we’ll examine the state of blockchain usage in healthcare, its concerns, and the solutions made possible through blockchain technologies.

Blockchain in healthcare

Blockchain, simply defined, is a digital record composed of data in components called blocks. These blocks are stored within a decentralized ledger system that allows for an interactive ecosystem in an often-public market. Since block data is immutable and therefore unable to be tampered with, it allows for security and ease-of-access across networks and geography.

In healthcare, decentralized storage of records in a blockchain system has been pushed as a solution to many problems the industry faces. Data breaches and medical fraud as well as often outdated systems of record storage and management are commonplace in the medical field, where Medicare fraud alone costs taxpayers as much as $30 billion a year.

In fact, 1 in 4 data breaches occurs in the healthcare industry, according to Duquesne University. The massive scale of this illegal activity makes for a difficult problem to solve for healthcare and IT professionals as they attempt to navigate solutions to managing healthcare records with the kind of transferability and analysis necessary in the modern world.

Security concerns proliferate in the healthcare industry. Without secure cloud services incapable of corruption at scale, everyone is at risk. Blockchain in healthcare has the potential to change that by offering secure, perpetual records accessible only with verified keys.

But blockchain usage does not come without its own concerns.

The concerns

Though the potential of blockchain stands to resolve so many problems of the current state of medical data, the issues of interacting with an open, decentralized database or a private one through a specific vendor still present problems for patient data security and the care facilities in charge of protecting it.

There are two forms of blockchain systems: public chains and private chains. Each comes with its own set of security concerns.

Public chains

These are the blockchain systems that are most common and prevalent, ecosystems like Bitcoin in which users across the world can participate. This is appealing in medical use because of the transferability and freedom patients would have with their data. However, a public chain would raise a few big concerns with the security and use of data.

First, healthcare institutions have to meet strict HIPAA guidelines guaranteeing the privacy and confidentiality of their patient data. In an open chain, you are inviting the world to participate in block usage. And while data blocks remain immutable and highly traceably, in a public chain, there are too many unknowns, with user data that would be hard to verify.

Second, the storage of much healthcare data on such a system is impossible with current standards. To date, blockchain technologies have only been used to store small amounts of data. Bitcoin, for example, only allows for the storage of one megabyte of data. This won’t be enough to effectively keep and secure medical records, leaving healthcare facilities to still store the bulk of patient information on less secure servers.

Private chains

A private chain system is regulated by a network that provides specific permissions for participants. This is a more desirable system for the kind of privacy and security necessary in storing healthcare data. However, private chains aren’t perfect either.

Care facilities could potentially be locked into their blockchain provider, forced to pay more than they or their patients could afford in order to continue using a service. The cost of transferring all data to another provider could be equally high, and patients could face a situation in which the cost is either transferred to them, or their data is even held at ransom.

Here, too, the need for storing data within networks would place patients at greater risk. Targeted attacks may still be able to glean more patient access keys without the right protections, leaving data vulnerable still.

The solutions

In spite of the concerns, blockchain technologies can provide real-world solutions to the massive problem of healthcare data breaches and security issues. Through a decentralized platform that protects each data block individually, a blockchain is capable of security unlike any other EHR system.

While these technologies might not currently be capable of complete storage of all data records, here are some of the solutions to healthcare security concerns they can offer:

  • Cryptographic hash functions

Hashing functions allow for higher security through an algorithm that sets an output length determined by the input. This can enhance the security of use keys by encrypting them so that information stays much more secure with the block, no matter if it’s public or private.

  • Permissioned blockchains

Blockchain data doesn’t have to be owned by any single entity. Patient data can be protected through their individual credentials to ensure the safety of their data. Every hash key can be unique with data fully decentralized to mitigate incentivize for a hacking attempt.

  • Snowball effect anti-tampering

Unique identifiers for users can be made additionally safe through snowball anti-tampering. This feature prevents the tampering of records by changing the hash of the manipulated block. Since blocks are linked by these hash pointers, the altering of one block can freeze out a malicious user and keep data safe and tamper-proof.

  • Better data storage

While currently the amount of data typically stored within a blockchain is relatively marginal, the future of blockchain innovation will see continuously improved practices for safe data storage. Early integrators of this technology will have an easier time adapting to increases in storage as they become available, further protecting patient data through better and better security functions enabled by blockchain technology.

With the very real security concerns posed by digital healthcare records, effective solutions must be determined to prevent risk to vulnerable patients. Blockchain just might be the answer healthcare needs in solving these problems.

Blockchain technology in the future of secure healthcare

Blockchain tech has the potential to transform the way medical records are stored and protected, eliminating fraud and the associated costs. A collective network in which patients own their data and access to it is possible through blockchain technology, allowing for both greater security and privacy as well as improved big data analysis for better care solutions.

The future of both blockchain and healthcare innovation will likely see the implementation of large-scale blockchain technologies that are capable of more than just security solutions. Blockchain technologies have the potential to change the way we interact with our data completely.

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