Mayo Clinic Gives Blockchain Another Try; Will it EVER Catch on in the Healthcare Sector?

Updated on February 24, 2023

Blockchain, a decentralized, immutable ledger most often associated with cryptocurrency, has great potential within the healthcare industry – potential to address privacy and data-security concerns. Potential to ward off cyberattacks. Potential, even, to make the payment process more efficient.

Blockchain can also aid in matters such as medication adherence and blockchain management, but widespread adoption has yet to take place. As Kali Dugampudi, chief technology officer at the healthcare payments company Zelis, told Healthcare IT News in a July 2022 interview, the sector has been “notoriously slow to adopt new technology,” meaning that we are “likely still years away from the healthcare industry widely adopting blockchain technology.”

Still, various entities continue to explore the technology’s many possibilities. In September 2022, for example, no less an organization than the Mayo Clinic announced it was partnering with Triall, a Dutch software company, on a two-year blockchain-based trial that involves patients suffering from pulmonary arterial hypertension. The goal is to assess the integrity of clinical data throughout the care journey, and improve document management.

Healthcare IT News quoted Hadil Es-Sbai, Triall’s co-founder and CEO, as saying that this partnership will lead to “further innovation and enhanced quality in clinical development, utilizing the strengths of blockchain technology where these truly add value.”

The Mayo Clinic, a renowned academic medical center dating back to 1864, also made a foray into the blockchain sector in 2018, when it entered into a working agreement with a London-based startup called Medicalchain. The goal was to use blockchain as a means for storing electronic health records, but according to Healthcare IT News, “use cases did not resonate for the long term.”

Dr. John Halamka and Paul Cerrato, president and senior research analyst/communications specialist for Mayo Clinic Platform, respectively, wrote in December 2021 of the challenges facing blockchain in the healthcare sector. First they cited a January 2021 Reuters piece noting that despite a considerable financial investment in blockchain, the results have been “mixed … with few projects achieving the revolutionary impact heralded by proponents.”

Halamka and Cerrato listed three reasons for this: a lack of scalability, the presence of “already trusted agencies” in the sector and “no significant incentive – financial or otherwise – to check the integrity of data and to handle database immutability.”

Their conclusion: “Like many “revolutions,” blockchain continues to face problems when implemented in the real world. Its true value will take time and patience to determine.”

Dugampudi likewise noted the many “roadblocks standing in the way of blockchain implementation,” in the aforementioned Healthcare IT News interview:

“Blockchain is a completely new type of technology – you can’t just go to a blockchain webpage and start making transactions. It needs new applications and a completely new backbone system, which must be built from scratch. In an industry that is still struggling with interoperability and the transition to electronic health records, this kind of technological undertaking is no small task.”

He nonetheless believes the technology can be “transformational,” in that it will “create a completely new type of technological infrastructure for these organizations.” Others share that optimism, as indicated by projections that $5.61 billion will be spent on healthcare blockchain by 2025, up from $170 million in 2018. Moreover, there is the expectation that its implementation could lead to savings of between $100 billion and $150 billion a year.

Consider that in 2016 Estonia became the first nation to secure patients’ health records on blockchain – records that cannot be accessed by hackers but which are available to the patients themselves via smart cards. Consider that during the pandemic two hospitals in the United Kingdom used blockchain to track the storage of COVID-19 vaccines, which was particularly critical since the one developed by Pfizer/BioNTech needed to be stored at extremely cold temperatures.

Jose Morey can also be counted among the blockchain believers. Morey, Chief Executive Officer of Ad Astra Media and Chief Health Officer of Ever Medical Technologies, proclaimed that blockchain “holds the potential to revolutionize healthcare” in an October 2021 piece for Forbes, and added that “with its full deployment, patients can be truly focused on at the center of all operations, which in turn will also be entirely overhauled with better security, privacy and accessibility.”

He went on to list companies that have developed blockchain solutions capable of securing patient data, enabling greater trust and collaboration and even simplifying contract negotiations.

In short, this technology is worthy of further exploration, as the Mayo Clinic (among others) has come to realize. It has, potentially, wide application, but has yet to be widely deployed, for the reasons mentioned above. But given the challenges facing the healthcare sector in the future (an aging population, a shortage of physicians, the threat of another pandemic, etc.), it would be wise to keep blockchain top of mind, as it could very well be a game-changer.