The Health Care Sector's Experience of Blockchain: A Cross-disciplinary Investigation of Its Real Transformative Potential

J Med Internet Res. 2021 Dec 20;23(12):e24109. doi: 10.2196/24109.


Background: Academic literature highlights blockchain's potential to transform health care, particularly by seamlessly and securely integrating existing data silos while enabling patients to exercise automated, fine-grained control over access to their electronic health records. However, no serious scholarly attempt has been made to assess how these technologies have in fact been applied to real-world health care contexts.

Objective: The primary aim of this paper is to assess whether blockchain's theoretical potential to deliver transformative benefits to health care is likely to become a reality by undertaking a critical investigation of the health care sector's actual experience of blockchain technologies to date.

Methods: This mixed methods study entailed a series of iterative, in-depth, theoretically oriented, desk-based investigations and 2 focus group investigations. It builds on the findings of a companion research study documenting real-world engagement with blockchain technologies in health care. Data were sourced from academic and gray literature from multiple disciplinary perspectives concerned with the configuration, design, and functionality of blockchain technologies. The analysis proceeded in 3 stages. First, it undertook a qualitative investigation of observed patterns of blockchain for health care engagement to identify the application domains, data-sharing problems, and the challenges encountered to date. Second, it critically compared these experiences with claims about blockchain's potential benefits in health care. Third, it developed a theoretical account of challenges that arise in implementing blockchain in health care contexts, thus providing a firmer foundation for appraising its future prospects in health care.

Results: Health care organizations have actively experimented with blockchain technologies since 2016 and have demonstrated proof of concept for several applications (use cases) primarily concerned with administrative data and to facilitate medical research by enabling algorithmic models to be trained on multiple disparately located sets of patient data in a secure, privacy-preserving manner. However, blockchain technology is yet to be implemented at scale in health care, remaining largely in its infancy. These early experiences have demonstrated blockchain's potential to generate meaningful value to health care by facilitating data sharing between organizations in circumstances where computational trust can overcome a lack of social trust that might otherwise prevent valuable cooperation. Although there are genuine prospects of using blockchain to bring about positive transformations in health care, the successful development of blockchain for health care applications faces a number of very significant, multidimensional, and highly complex challenges. Early experience suggests that blockchain is unlikely to rapidly and radically revolutionize health care.

Conclusions: The successful development of blockchain for health care applications faces numerous significant, multidimensional, and complex challenges that will not be easily overcome, suggesting that blockchain technologies are unlikely to revolutionize health care in the near future.

Keywords: blockchain; computer security; data sharing; electronic health record; health information management; health information systems; health services administration; mobile phone; privacy of patient data.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Blockchain*
  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Electronic Health Records
  • Health Care Sector
  • Humans
  • Privacy