Editor's Note

HME and Blockchain

What could this important security technology mean for our industry? It turns out, a lot.

Blockchain is a word you’re likely hearing in the news pretty frequently, and now you might even be hearing it in industry parlance, but you might not have any idea what it means. Don’t worry; you’re not alone. Blockchain has been a somewhat rarified technology for a decade, and it’s only now coming to light as various industries seek a better way to keep data safe.

Blockchain was originally developed in 1991 to timestamp information, but was repurposed in 2008 to help the Bitcoin crypto-currency stay, well … more “crypto.” The reason you’ve started hearing more about it is due to Bitcoin’s skyrocketing valuations.

Understanding Blockchain

So what is blockchain, what does it do, and why in the heck am I talking about it in relation to our industry?

A blockchain is a distributed set of information that is kept in a network. The data is stored in blocks. For example, it could store the information related to a specific financial transaction (Joe gave Jane $50, for example).

That block also has a unique hash, which is essentially a digital code that identifies that block. If you change the information stored in that block, it becomes a new block with a news hash, while also retaining the hash of the previous block. This creates the chain of blocks.

This is important because it lets you see when a block has been changed. If a block in a chain is tampered with, its hash will change. Then all subsequent references to that block will point to the wrong block.

To add further security, blockchains negate the processing power of today’s computers, which could conceivably recalculate a series of hashes, by incorporating a “poof of work” mechanism that slows down the process of creating new blocks by multiple minutes.

Finally, as mentioned, the system is distributed across a peer-to-peer network. New blocks are sent to all nodes on the network, which then confirm with one another that the block is valid and hasn’t been compromised. Any blocks that have been compromised will be rejected.

These three security elements mean that it’s virtually impossible to tamper with a block and have it accepted by the blockchain network.

What Does Blockchain Mean for HME?

Needless to say, if blockchain can keep a currency such as Bitcoin from being hacked, various industries have started looking at this technology as a method for keeping data secure. And this is where healthcare comes in, including our industry.

Think of it: right now, there are various healthcare entities — HME providers included — that still rely on fax transmission as a central way to share information with one another because they trust it more than current data security methods. Think about it, there is still a good deal of critical patient information and claims documentation circulating via fax.

Now there are some great fax automation and document management systems out there that can help providers make sense of all that, but there can be no denying that in this is an incredibly time-consuming and costly workflow. In fact, it’s almost anachronistic given today’s healthcare information technology.

Think about how much faster and accurate claims documentation would be with a HIPAA-compliant, information-sharing system that leveraged blockchain to keep that information secure? How would that impact your time to process claims? How would it speed reimbursement? How would that mitigate claims audits?

And that’s just claims-related issues. There are a variety of innovations that are essentially waiting in the wings because they need better data security. Imagine how much faster new care paradigms such as remote patient monitoring and management would come online if they utilized security protocols that everyone trusted?

This is why every HME professional should monitor blockchain in the healthcare marketplace. It’s a simple concept, but it could radically change the way providers work and even care for patients.

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of HME Business.

About the Author

David Kopf is the Editor of HME Business.

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