Health

AI and Blockchain: The Future of the Healthcare Industry?

In an evolving ecosystem, these two technologies have a range of applications

The healthcare industry has been stage to some impressive technological applications. Be it at the research center, in a clinical trial, or a treatment facility, technology has been the leading player behind the scenes and on stage. 

The medical world has leveraged technologies successfully to enhance imaging machines, to create state of the art operating tools and to make great leaps in the pharmaceutical industry. Continually working together, technology has become the primary foundation of modern healthcare. 

According to Deloitte, the global healthcare expenditures are expected to continue to rise at an annual rate of 5.4 percent between 2017 and 2022, from $7.724 trillion to $10.059 trillion. In 2040, global spending on healthcare is expected to reach more than $18 trillion.  Estimations say that Americans spend nearly $10,500 per person per year on medical care. 

Undeniably, it’s a vast and complex sector, with various players involved. From hospital administration to service providers and insurance companies, there is an entire backbone behind delivering medical services. Considered to be fragmented, not all sectors of the health sphere have begun the journey to integrate new technologies in favor of efficiency and lower costs. 

As is typical in intricate multi-level industries, disparities exist, but this doesn’t stop other areas from flourishing. As technology is continually advancing, it’s reshaping the healthcare landscape at a fast rate. 

And it’s not a surprise that the industry is appealing to new technologies as well as big corporate players. Tech giants such as Apple, Amazon and Google have started to venture into the healthcare ecosystem, looking for a place in the chaotic, yet ever-growing health marketplace. 

They’re looking to address issues related to diagnostics, prediction and prevention, as well as payments and delivery systems. Among the technologies being leveraged by these giants are big data, artificial intelligence and blockchain. Yes, the “buzz technologies” have arrived, catalyzing changes in the industry. 

On this third article of the “AI & Blockchain Series”, we’ll tackle how blockchain and AI are being implemented as solutions across different sectors in healthcare.  

Read: Blockchain & AI: Enhancing the User Experience while Ensuring Data Privacy 

Blockchain as the backbone of the overly ‘datafied’ healthcare industry

In this multi-level ecosystem, data is, at the same time, a powerful resource and a constraint. Complicated paperwork, massive delays and miscommunication are one of the top issues attached to data management. When it comes to using, managing and interpreting, blockchain has become a go-to solution in data-heavy sectors, and healthcare is one of them. 

According to The American College of Surgeons Bulletin, blockchain technology can be a “converge point for health information”. The healthcare industry has become overloaded by data, and blockchain can provide solutions to players in the sector to handle this ‘datafied’ reality. Due to its immutable and decentralized nature, blockchain can be the answer to cutting costs, optimizing processes and improving transparency. 

Real-world scenarios include: 

“Blockchain has the potential to transform how pharmaceutical data is controlled, managed, shared and acted upon,” said the Leader for Blockchain in Healthcare & Life Sciences at IBM Global Solutions Leader, Mark Treshock. 

  • Storage and management of health records on blockchain platforms, allowing patients to protect their data and give access to them upon request, as well as improving information management between healthcare entities. 

The research, Blockchain Technology in Global Healthcare, 2017–2025, by Frost & Sullivan, states: “Blockchain technology may not be the panacea for healthcare industry challenges, but it holds the potential to save billions of dollars by optimizing current workflows and disintermediating some high-cost gatekeepers.”

  • Reduce centralized control over patient datasets and boost medical research and treatment.

For more, check out the article: Blockchain in Healthcare: Real-World Use Cases

In these applications, blockchain is the backbone of a system’s infrastructure, allowing data to be stored securely in a trustless, decentralized platform. To leverage artificial intelligence in this industry, blockchain plays an essential role in powering the technology. 

AI and its applications 

Healthcare’s artificial intelligence market is expected to increase elevenfold between 2014 and 2021, from $600 million to $6.6 billion according to research from Accenture.

When it comes to AI applications in the healthcare industry, one can argue that “no AI application has yet reached a state of artificial general intelligence.” However, there are various successful examples of applied AI. Together, they can deliver high accuracy in information treatment and workforce augmentation. 

AI can be deployed to analyse and disseminate data, which can be potentially stored on a blockchain, directly impacting patients and service providers. 

One of the applications of AI is machine learning, which operates on the premise that machines “use extensive amounts of data to learn for themselves and eventually recognize more of the unknown.”

Both AI – the broader concept that has applications besides machine learning – and machine learning implications are being developed in the healthcare industry. Let’s have a look at examples. 

Predictive diagnosis and outcomes

Large data sets and past examples readily feed machine learning and easily integrates it with the healthcare industry. It learns patterns to detect tumors, recommend diagnoses and in some cases, predict a patient’s hospital stay. Google has been working on this front, introducing an algorithm for the neural network software, which will predict patient outcomes (length of visit, readmission possibilities and odds of death).

Managing billing data

AI can be used to learn about health plans by feeding on databases from different platforms (stored on a shared blockchain) and provide answers relating to bills. AI would analyse and disseminate clear and understandable data, avoiding unnecessary back-and-forth and improving efficiency. Having sensitive data stored on the blockchain would mean that only the necessary information would be made available to the correct entity to analyze. 

“By fusing all major medical billing software, and creating data-driven, patient billing software that keeps patients in the loop, patients understand what they owe, why they owe, why their insurance company didn’t cover the costs, and how they can settle the balance with the provider,” said the CEO of Collectly, Levon Brutyan.

Extracting and structuring information 

What about medical professionals? They’re not left out of this complex equation. Serving as consultants, AI tools, combined with analytical software, can answer questions. That’s what IBM’s Watson supercomputer has been doing. According to IBM, 115,000 patients and consumers have been processed. 

This has proven to be particularly useful to help doctor’s deal with the constant influx of new information and breakthroughs. Around the world, doctors are using the software to analyse symptoms, come to a diagnosis and take decisions. 

Applied AI can also make use of cognitive technologies to acquire, structure and deliver health records into data sets used for research and service providers. This can help solve the challenge in data sharing. When converting millions of records in the form of images into electronic documents, it goes through a review and adjustments. It then systematically feeds a machine learning feedback loop, that in turn trains the system to achieve higher accuracy. 

From digitizing medical records to managing them – what does the future hold?

The industry isn’t reserved for tech giants only. Given the numerous solutions new technologies can bring forward, this is the right moment for entrepreneurs looking to make a break. The opportunities present themselves in the form of data, which is currency and power. The key lies in the fact that every individual’s health data could fill 300 million books

Democratizing aspects of healthcare is helping save time and money. That is translated into day-to-day use cases, such as wearable health devices. Think assessments of diseases and sharing of real-time data with doctors. The opportunities are vast and ever-growing. 

Over the past decade, technological advances in the healthcare industry were targeted to digitizing medical records. The issue at hand now is how to manage these massive data sets. Advances are being made, but like any disruption, it takes time. 

AI tools in healthcare have a high bar to meet for one simple reason: human error is one of the main reasons the technology is being applied in the sector. So any wrong turn with an AI tool could mean substantial consequences, in addition to a big setback in the industry and the public eye.

However, this only means that it holds enormous potential to improve the healthcare industry. As industries slowly – and surely – discover the applications of these new technologies, all the possibilities are still unknown. But one thing is for sure: new tech advancements are here to stay, and we’ll be seeing their impacts very soon.

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Laisa Lopes

Laisa is a journalist and a blockchain enthusiast. With her experience in different industries, Laisa sees the technology as one of the prime disruptors of the 21st century. She's a fierce advocate of decentralization and innovation. Laisa coordinates the team of writers at The Blockchain Land and on her spare time, she is globe trotting.

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