Why blockchain could be good for your health – and other things, too

Go on, admit it.

You’ve heard people talking about blockchain technology and you’ve smiled and nodded your head while having no idea what they were talking about. They may as well have been speaking another language.

I’ll let you in on a secret – you’re not alone. Even if you’ve looked up ‘blockchain’ on Google, the chances are that the explanations have left you none the wiser. Yet, this is an area of information technology that could completely transform how we share and store information in countless industries.

How do we redesign societies using emerging technology?

Jamie Skella is the co-founder of one of Australia’s first blockchain projects, Horizon State – a company focused on redesigning how societies collaboratively make decisions using emerging technology. To help explain how blockchain technology works, he developed a simple, but very effective scenario.

What is Blockchain?

In short, Skella asks us to imagine one person giving another an item of value (say $5, but it could be a piece of information or anything else). There are hundreds of people witnessing this transaction and each records what they see as a ‘block’ of encrypted information in a distributed ledger or ‘shared record book’. Each record is stored separately but linked to all the other records of the same transaction. As all the records are identical, they can be used to verify that the transaction took place exactly as outlined in the block. Each block is also linked to the transactions that came before or after it, creating a chain of blocks or ‘blockchain’. What’s more, nobody owns the transaction or has full responsibility for it.

If you’re still confused or would like more detail, listen to the recording of Skella’s presentation Our Blockchain Based Future, part of Florence Guild’s speaker series, ’The Art of Focus’.

Why do we need Blockchain?

Blockchain transactions are transparent, indisputable and unchangeable. You can’t go back and change a block of information without it affecting all the transactions linked to it – just like you can’t go back in time and change something without it creating different versions of your present reality. (Think “Back to the Future” on steroids.) If anyone tries to tamper with a transaction, the ripple effects will draw attention to it immediately and set off danger alerts in all directions.

Also, the way the recorded data is encrypted means while others can verify that the transaction took place, only those with the encryption key can access the data fully and do anything with it. The sophistication of encryption adds a level of security the likes of which we have never seen before.

By contrast, current data records can be hacked and changed without our knowledge. Data trails can be blurred or changed. Private files can be copied and shared endless times. And, we can’t trust the banks and other intermediate parties any more.

“At this point, you might be thinking that this (blockchain) doesn’t sound like it’s going to change the world at all. It’s just a way to verify the ownership of something digital, even if there are identical copies… right? If you think about that sentence for long enough, it will already begin to dawn on you how big of a deal that is. Up until now, a copy of something digital was indistinguishable from another. If an mp3 could be used as currency, there would be no way to tell who’s copy of “Madonna – Like a Prayer.mp3” was the real one that I should exchange for goods and services, and which was a copy. Suffice to say that prior to this technology, a truly digital coin was not possible – someone could just copy a coin a million times and be a millionaire.”

(From Jamie Skella’s LinkedIn article A Blockchain Explanation Your Parents Could Understand.)

Potential uses of blockchain technology

So, while blockchain technology was designed to enable digital currency transactions to take place, first in Bitcoin and later in other currencies as well, the technology is rapidly evolving to create immense value in other areas.

For example, blockchain can be used to record and protect:

  • Votes from community-level AGM’s right through to Federal elections.
  • Contract agreements and executions.
  • Copyrights and royalties.
  • Wills and inheritances.
  • Personal identification information.

Blockchain and electronic health records

One area in great need of a systemic overhaul is that of electronic health records (EHRs).

Although EHRs have been used in various forms for years in hospitals and other medical centres, they’ve been created using all sorts of digital platforms that exist in silos and simply don’t connect with each other. If you’ve had any dealings with health systems (here and overseas), you’d know that prescriptions and referrals get lost, doctors still use fax machines, and people die in emergency wards because the doctors there often don’t know what medications the patients are on.

What we need is an integrated system where our health information can be shared freely and instantly with parties of our choosing without the risk of anyone else hacking into our sensitive data. The Australian Government has come a long way in developing an integrated EHR system on an unprecedented scale – the My Health Record platform and the National Digital Health Strategy. However, there is still some concern about the security of our health data which, rightly or wrongly, is causing many people to opt out of the MHR system.

One solution under investigation is the use of blockchain technology. (See Lynne Minion’s Healthcare IT article Federal Government successfully trials blockchain for researcher access to Australian patient records.) At this stage, blockchain is being trialled for research access purposes only, but it has the potential to revolutionise how we share and store our healthcare data. That’s got to be a good thing for our health.

This episode forms part of our 2018 series narrative, ‘The Art of Focus’ which is based on the premise that, in an information-dense society, our attention resources have become depleted. The series’ speakers will help us identify and explore the areas in our lives where we may need to regain focus, increase our self-awareness and improve how we interact with those around us.

If you’d like to hear more of Jamie Skella’s recorded conversation, Our Blockchain Based Future, and learn more about the ways blockchain technology is already making a difference in your life, tune in to episode 28 of our podcast series ‘The Art of Focus’. You can also keep up to date with conversations with other thought leaders by subscribing to our podcast on iTunes and Stitcher Radio.

For more information on our flexible coworking spaces and speaker conversations in Sydney and Melbourne please click here or contact us.