Blockchain’s best healthcare use cases could be supply chain management, administrative processes

As healthcare industry players pilot test the use of blockchain, the technology’s biggest near-term impact could be on back-end processes and supply chain management.

That’s according to the latest report from PwC, which predicts blockchain will be prevalent in certain areas of healthcare within just a few years, adding that those who could benefit have “precious little time to plan, adjust and adapt.”

But blockchain’s biggest impact could be on intermediaries that handle data, according to analysts. For instance, Walmart recently announced it will begin tracking leafy greens with blockchain technology to respond to foodborne outbreaks like E. coli. Pharmaceutical companies and medical suppliers could use a similar approach to accurately track product histories.

According to the PwC report, there are already several ongoing pilot projects between pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesale distributors to iron out some of the technology’s weaknesses.

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Similarly, a distributed ledger could simplify administrative and physician credentialing processes. According to the report, blockchain could save payers and providers 2-4 months in time spent credentialing providers. Some payers have estimated provider directors cost the industry $2.1 billion annually to maintain. 

“The killer use case here is definitely supply chain management and all associated payments that go around that back office processes,” said Grainne McNamara, a principal at PwC who specializes in blockchain and cryptocurrency. “I do think you’ll see a couple of big players come in and broker a deal and make that go to scale.”

Some of those efforts are already underway. Humana and UnitedHealth are among the insurers that launched a blockchain pilot earlier this year aimed at improving provider demographic data.

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But trust is still a factor within the industry. According to a survey of 74 global healthcare companies conducted by PwC, 49% are developing, piloting or implementing blockchain projects. But that same survey pegged lack of trust as the biggest barrier (47%) followed by regulatory uncertainty (39%) and the ability to bring the network together (37%).

Despite that hesitance, several industry players are laying down the building blocks for a blockchain infrastructure, McNamara said. And those early entrants will set the standards and be able to quickly take advantage of new efficiencies.

But for the rest of the industry, blockchain will be a ubiquitous part of that underlying technology within the next five years, she said. By then, the bigger focus will be what types of apps can be built on top of the underlying infrastructure.

“The technology is moving very fast,” McNamara said. "And you better have an individual business strategy that is informed by technology.”