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Blockchain Disruption a Matter of "When, Not if," According to HLTH Panel


"It’s a combination of 20- or 30-year-old technologies that allow systems to interoperate...I don’t want to hear anyone asking if this is mature technology."

Blockchain sessions have become a de facto feature at health tech conferences these days. Usually they consist of someone explaining once again what the technology is. But at HLTH this week in Las Vegas, the crowd got a trio of experts, and the conversation wasn’t about whether or not there were use cases. Instead, they spoke specifically of what they would be and when they would start to disrupt the industry.

The 3 on hand were Ted Tanner, cofounder of Pokitdok, Jay Sales, director of VSP Global, and Walter de Brouwer, Doc.ai’s outspoken CEO.

Tanner laid out 3 applications for the technology that he sees. There’s a need in healthcare for for contextually relevant identifiers, like the social security number someone carries until they die. Blockchain can be used to create and secure those, he said.

There’s also the concept of autonomous automatic adjudication. Tanner argued that blockchain can be used to tokenize healthcare episodes to remove the human obligation (and potential for error) that exist in claims processing. Sales echoed the belief that blockchain would fundamentally disrupt the way healthcare organizations approach reimbursement.

The final area that Tanner noted was one of the most commonly-cited targets for blockchain and perhaps the concept it most logically suits: Securing pharmacy and device supply chains. As with the previous 2 suggestions, he said, it plays to an industrywide trend towards disintermediation.

Electronic health records (EHR) vendors were a particular target during the conversation. Given that, fundamentally, they are built as billing systems and are also responsible for device and drug ordering, EHRs might face significant changes as a result of the technology—or stand in the way of them.

“The whole idea of health records will be outdated by 2020,” Tanner said, quipping that blockchain will begin having a noticeable effect on the industry “when people stop signing $500 million maintenance contracts” with their EHR providers. That could take 15 years, however.

Sales put the technology on an accelerated timeline. Blockchain could start to break the EHR gridlock in “3,238 days,” he said. “That’s about 8 years, right?”

It was de Brouwer who was the most audacious, though he might have been slightly sarcastic. One year, he said. Although earlier in the conversation, he did express a sincere belief that a least 1 major insurer would decide on their own to tokenize in the short term. And that might be a possibility—earlier this year, Humana and 2 of Unitedhealth’s subsidiaries joined together in an early exploratory initiative around blockchain.

Tanner summed up his frustrations with the healthcare industry’s ongoing doubts about the technology. As buzzy of a buzzword as it has become, its underlying tech concepts are hardly brand-new.

“It’s a combination of 20- or 30-year-old technologies that allow systems to interoperate. Cryptocurrencies have been around for 25 years, smart contracts have been around since 1990’s, hashing has been around since the 1960’s,” he said. “I don’t want to hear anyone asking if this is mature technology.”

Related Coverage:

Introducing HLTH, the Startup of Health Conferences

Big Healthcare Players to Explore Blockchain's Viability

Experts Sound Off on How AI Became a Bad Buzzword

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