The pandemic has revealed how poorly digitized our healthcare sector still is. Above all, there is a lack of effective data protection to drive the industry forward. Blockchain technology could help here - and completely change our everyday lives.
When Jens Strüker is asked about digital patient records, he first groans. "We were already working on this 20 years ago when I was still an assistant at the university," says the current head of the Fraunhofer Institute's blockchain lab in the interview with the FitTech Insider. Technically, the implementation was already possible back then. The medical history of every patient could be digitized with such a file, and doctors treating them could deal with individual peculiarities much more easily. Patients, in turn, would be spared having to fill out long questionnaires for every new doctor.
How the blockchain works
A blockchain is a new technology for storing data in a tamper-proof way. For this purpose, any digital data is combined in blocks, for example the details of bank transfers in the case of cryptocurrencies. An algorithm is used to form a so-called "hash" from the data in a single block. This is a letter-number salad that can be uniquely formed only by the data in that block. Each block is now added to a virtual data chain by storing in it the hash value of the preceding and following data blocks. If a criminal were now to try to manipulate data in a block, this would change the hash value. The block would then no longer fit into the chain. For the same reason, it is not possible to subsequently exchange blocks.
But we still don't have digital files today. As simple as it would be to create them from a purely technical point of view, it is still impossible. "What we lack is digital identity management," says Strüker. Consumers are already experiencing that all the data they provide about themselves somewhere is sold, stolen, misused and exploited. What can already lead to major problems between Amazon and Zalando would be multiplied in the healthcare sector - after all, no data is more personal and intimate than one's own medical history.
All identities in an "ID wallet" on the smartphoneStrüker is therefore doing a lot of research at the Fraunhofer Institute on a model called "self-sovereign identities." The idea behind this is to create a platform that anyone can use to authenticate themselves as themselves. The result would be an ID wallet in which users could store not only user accounts from various websites, but also, for example, a digital ID card, a driver's license and their own medical records. The name "ID wallet" was not chosen at random, as it is reminiscent of cryptocurrency accounts called "wallets”. And just like these, the Self-Sovereign Identity is to be managed via a blockchain.
Blockchain at FitTech Summit V: Tech or Die!
On November 8 and 9, 2021, FitTech Summit V: Tech or Die! will take place digitally. At Europe's most relevant conference on the future of fitness and health technology, experts like Keith Rumjahn, Ben Pember and Jens Strüker will discuss the power of blockchain for fitness and health with moderator Markos Kern. Get your free ticket now!
No data would be stored in the digital chain, but only certificates that assign the ID wallet to a specific person. The blockchain would have to be managed by the state. "It would then confirm your authenticity in the same way that the German Federal Printing Office does today for the authenticity of your ID card," says Strüker. The idea is simple, but has huge implications for the applications that could be created with it.
"The kicker is that with a blockchain certificate like this, you could not only manage your identity, but also your data," Strüker says. Access authorizations, for example, could also be stored in the data chain. You could allow your doctor to view your medical history. As soon as you withdraw this permission, for example when you leave the doctor's office, access ends. Your patient file itself would not be stored on an external server, but decentrally, for example on your own smartphone. In the same way, you could release - or block - certain data for insurance companies.
Cancer diagnosis via artificial intelligence"The possibilities of an ecosystem around such a blockchain are gigantic," says Strüker, giving just one small example. If you go to the doctor with a fever, chills and a cough, for example, he or she could use the blockchain to compare your medical history with all patients who have similar symptoms, perhaps even in the same region - and match their diagnoses with you. "For a simple cold, such a mass evaluation is not necessarily necessary. But for cancer diagnoses, it would be very valuable," says Strüker. Here, it would even be possible to train artificial intelligences (AIs) with millions of tumor images from patients, who would simply release them for the corresponding research with a click. Machine learning would thus probably save countless human lives. Today, this would only be possible if a provider were allowed to store the data of all patients centrally on its servers.
Strüker is certain that such a large ecosystem could be built up around these "self-sovereign identities" that a whole new era could ultimately emerge. He already likes to talk about a "Web 3.0" today. In contrast to the currently prevailing version 2.0, the triumph of social media, all data and the power over it would then once again lie with the users.