It has been some time since I posted here. I was struggling to find an interesting topic to write about, and what more interesting topic can one find other than blockchains! It has already conquered the news, the business world, the research community and very soon, who knows it may even be the new Internet of the modern age. Different than my previous posts, this post is not a puzzle or an experimental study, but more of a collection of my thoughts on an area I think blockchains can help the health care industry.
So, as part of my internship with Visa Research, I get to meet a lot of interesting people who are doing some cutting-edge work in the field of cryptocurrencies and using blockchains for a multitude of applications. During one of these conversations, I got curious about how people are trying to apply the blockchain technology to the field of medical science. However, most of the links I could find online were concerned with trying to secure medical data and make them globally available, while preserving the privacy of the people that helped in the collection of that data. This one particular web page does a nice job of listing different ways in which the healthcare industry is benefitting or can benefit from the blockchain technology. Some of these applications include contract verification between health plan providers and patients, aggregation and availability of patient databases to a large population, trust management between record keepers and record users, real time decentralized movement and update of records, among many other ways in which the technology can help bring a unified and secure view of health care across the globe.
Although these applications do seem to be some obvious beneficiaries of the technology, I was surprised to find almost no content on the web about the use of blockchains for providing global medical services. One of the key things I learned recently since starting to look more deeply into blockchains is that one can treat them as bulletin boards, where information once recorded stays forever and any addition of new information must be agreed upon for validity by the people using the blockchain. With this view, imagine a global clinic where Dr. Block, a blockchain disguised as a doctor, treats her patients all around the world. She learns how to perform diagnosis through the experts in the industry and through treating her patients over time. Every time she treats someone or some human doctor performs diagnosis for a disease, they update their information with Dr. Block, which she uses later for her future patients. Let me explain this is a little more detail.
Let us say that Dr. Block is an expert in the diagnosis of a disease D. Initially, some highly experienced doctor, say Dr. Expert_1, somewhere in the world, who works in a top hospital or a medical research center trains a model (with the help of his team or students) that helps him/her classify patients who have disease D or not based on the symptoms. This model can be trained on patient data in a way that preserves the privacy of these patients. For example, if this model is based on a neural network, once the training is complete, the weights of the network reveal no information about the data that was used to train the network. This doctor is altruistic by nature, so when he observes that his model provides reasonably good accuracy in the disease diagnosis, he wants to help people all around the world to use his model to determine whether they have D or not. He decides to contact Dr. Block about this.
Dr. Block suggests Dr. Expert_1 to upload his trained model (or some form of it’s hash) on the blockchain. (Let’s not deviate ourselves by focussing too much on efficiency here, but there are many other ways of making this model available on the blockchain in a way that makes it easy for people to verify and access it later. ) Since Dr. Expert_1 is still human and wants some credit for his work, he charges some money from anyone who wants to use this model to diagnose his patients, and reward people who contribute to the model. For this purpose, he also devises a cryptocurrency, say DOCT, and accepts/provides payments in this currency. So once this model (or it’s hash) is available on the blockchain for people to use, anyone in the world now can use it in exchange of some DOCTs and get rewarded in DOCTs for contributing to the model.
Say I am Dr. Expert_2 and I reside in a remote village in India where health care is beyond the reach of people who live in my village. I come to know of Dr. Block that he is very accurate in the diagnosis of disease D and I want to use his expertise in helping my patients here. I apply for access to Dr. Block by paying the required DOCTs (over the same blockchain) and download the trained model. This payment is done in a similar manner to that of cryptocurrencies today. Once I download this model, I use it on my patients and help them take appropriate measures. For some extra DOCTs, I use my technical expertise (which I gained as my hobby) to provide this diagnosis as a service through phones and self-service booths around my village. Since no network connectivity is required to make use of this model, I can do it in the remotest part of my village.
Over time, I discover that some patients were diagnosed correctly while some others were not. I am sad about the false negatives, but I am happy I was able to take preventive measures before things went out of hand for them. However, I do not want future patients to be identified falsely for the disease D. So, I train this model further using my patients’ data and results (incremental training) and suggest the improved model to Dr. Block. The typical consensus algorithm that allows for blocks to be added to the blockchain now contains experienced doctors from around the world who will now check if the new model I am proposing provides better accuracy against their test dataset. If a consensus is reached in agreement with my model, Dr. Block accepts my new model and Dr. Expert_1 pays me my reward in the form of some DOCTs. I can now use these DOCTs later to upgrade my model later, if necessary. However, if the experts feel that the new model is not good, they can not include it. This way, it is almost like all the doctors in the world have joined hands together in curing the disease D.
Of course, the discussion above is very high level and in some sense, assumes altruism and good will of the people. The typical questions of adversarial environments and malicious tampering that arise with modern cryptocurrencies also map to this setting, but we leave that for people who actually get interested in this idea and want to implement it. In a nutshell, I wanted to convey my thoughts about how blockchains are a little more powerful in their capabilities than what is currently thought of them and one should really think of them as a global service provider that is secure and tamper evident and by their very design and intention, provide a payment model for the services as well.
Hope you liked this post and will give it a thought. I am very open to actually bringing this idea to life so if any of you want to join hands with me, let’s collaborate and try to bring the best of technology and health care in making this world a safer and a healthier place! Until then, ciao! 🙂
Featured image source.