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The pace of change and innovation in technology is staggering, and unless you’re keeping a watchful eye on the trends, it’s easy to get left behind or feel in the dark about new tech.  Blockchain is one such technology.  Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies fall into that category as well.

These are terms that get thrown around on the news or in conversations about new technology, but what do they really mean.  And how might they impact healthcare?

Blockchain is a new technology that is changing the way digital information is stored and maintained.  Conventional storage saves all of your data to a server, either physical or virtual.  A single version of your data is saved there, then re-accessed, updated and resaved to that same location. When the server is full, a new one is added to expand the storage space.

With blockchain, data from multiple transactions are packaged together (into a block) and added to a database that is stored in thousands of locations and hosted by millions of computers across a network around the world. This accomplishes a couple of things:

  1. It makes it impossible to corrupt the data because there is no single point of failure and no central source of information.
  2. The decentralized nature of information in a blockchain adds transparency for transactions and record keeping.

In its current state, imagine a financial ledger that is recorded and duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers.  And then imagine that the network is designed to continuously update and reconcile the ledger so that all transactions are accounted for and transparent.  It’s impossible to corrupt the data because it’s everywhere and with open access to the public.

To date, blockchain is typically used for storing banking transaction information for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.  However, the implications of blockchain technology for healthcare tie directly into the storage of your personal health information (PHI) and the ability to access your entire medical history across multiple providers throughout your lifetime.  Will we use blockchain to protect your personal information one day?  Only time will tell.

Bitcoin is the most popular and well-known cryptocurrency circulating today.  But what is it exactly?  In short, bitcoin is a digital currency that is decentralized (no government or bank that controls is) and owned by anonymous users.  How does it have value you ask?  Because those who are willing to pay for it, say it does.  Bitcoin is bought and sold digitally as units across the globe, much like stocks for your favorite companies.  People purchase bitcoin units at a certain price, and as its value increases or decreases, they sell it for real money.

Bitcoin is the most popular, but there are hundreds of cryptocurrencies out there.  Though not all of them can be trusted.  Might bitcoin be used to pay your hospital bills one day?  Doubtful in the near future, but anything’s possible in the ever-evolving world of healthcare and technology.  What’s clear is that its popularity continues to grow, and it is expanding outside the tech world.  Bitcoin can be used to purchase goods at more than 100,000 merchants, but very few major retailers, currently.

As stated above, Bitcoin is one of many cryptocurrencies.  Cryptocurrencies are defined by three traits:

  1. They have no intrinsic value.
    • They cannot be redeemed for another commodity such as gold.
  2. They have no physical form.
    • They only exist digitally.
  3. Their supply is not determined by a central bank.
    • The network of cryptocurrencies is completely decentralized.

Technological advancements move at a rapid pace these days and staying informed on the latest trends is important for all of us.  The real question remains how these technologies will impact Healthcare IT and ultimately how they will impact patients.

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