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is blockchain the answer to the health data security issues?

31 July 2018

Such has been the rapid development of health tech innovations and gadgets over the last few years that we now produce an estimated 750 quadrillion bytes of health data worldwide every day. We are on the verge of harnessing this data to solve problems in ways that were previously unimaginable.

A big prize of the health tech revolution is the electronic health record (EHR). Truly portable, dynamic and able to be accessed and edited by health and care professionals in different organisations and locations, this holy grail of healthcare is still in different stages of development across the sector. It promises to improve the quality and efficiency of patient care and, just as importantly, facilitate the AI-powered analysis of all that data. There are still considerable barriers, however, to realising the benefits on offer, not least those relating to data security and privacy.

One possible solution being put forward is blockchain, the distributed transaction ledger technology used in the finance world with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. Most iterations of blockchain technology feature a permanent time-stamped record of all data, and are decentralised across a peer-to-peer network rather than residing on a central database. Some health-related trials are already underway, such as the collaboration between Medicalchain and Groves Medical Group to pilot MyClinic.com which claims to use blockchain technology to provide for secure access to electronic health records, GP video consultations and cryptocurrency payment options.

There are a number of technological barriers still to be overcome before blockchain could be widely adopted, not least proving that it is secure enough to protect the most personal and sensitive of data. There are also legal implications such as the question of jurisdiction in legal disputes as, due to the decentralised nature of the technology, individual ‘nodes’ can be located in multiple jurisdictions. Another hot topic is smart contracts, a key feature of certain blockchain technology which can automate payments and transactions, and the extent to which these are (or need to be) legally enforceable. There is also a lot of hype about blockchain and its potential uses; sometimes it is even necessary to question whether a particular technical approach is using blockchain at all.

Whether blockchain lives up to the hype or not, technology is nevertheless changing exponentially. Yet only a small amount of change can realistically be absorbed by organisations at a time, an observation explained by ‘Martec’s Law’ which looked at why good companies get disrupted. It is no longer possible to keep up with all technological developments as the rate of growth is simply too fast. Therefore it is advisable to strategically identify and prioritise the technology that can bring the biggest benefits to an organisation, and try to ignore the rest.

related opinions

Treatment of mixed personal data

The Court of Appeal has recently considered the interaction between third party rights and subject access requests (SAR) in a case which offers helpful guidance for data controllers on how to deal with mixed personal data.

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