Technology makes life easier. Every day, new possibilities emerge. But the situation can also be taxing, because what are the implications of this plethora of new technologies? This uncertainty affects us all, from agriculture to the mobility industry and healthcare. Terms like blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing and extended reality or immersive technologies (including virtual, augmented and mixed reality) are frequently heard topics when it comes to the future of healthcare. And because of the corona crisis, in part, interest in such digital technologies has only increased. But what is the appeal of this perspective?
Blockchain technology contributes to chain collaboration in healthcare
Although industries such as agriculture, mobility and healthcare are quite different, each with their own industry-specific issues, the underlying principle for modern technologies is the same. Being able to unlock accurate and safe data is essential for their success. Mutual trust in the so-called chain collaboration is an important aspect. We are trying to organise and stimulate chain collaboration in all industries using modern technologies. Take blockchain technology as an example; a technology that contributes to the next step in the digitisation of chain processes. Experiments with this technology are well under way. One example is the European PharmaLedger project, which aims to develop a scalable and sustainable platform for new blockchain-driven applications. Another example is IBM experimenting with a more transparent and efficient process for tracing medication in logistic pharmacy chains[1,2]. Despite the prevalence of these experiments, the healthcare industry is still lagging behind other industries according to OECD.
Aiming for a more decentralised infrastructure
The success of modern technologies depends on the ability to unlock data accurately and safely. In my opinion, centrally managed information systems are still too ubiquitous in this regard. It is becoming increasingly clear that certain issues are inherent to these centralised systems, whether it be fake news, data leaks at the Public Health Service (GGD) and other institutions or the disruption of logistic chains during a pandemic. A large proportion of problems is due to the underlying digital infrastructure being organised centrally and lacking interconnectivity. Decentralisation solves these issues as data is no longer stored in one place like a pot of honey. Plus, people get to decide whom they want to share their data with. And because data and algorithms are connected at the system level, the necessity for a central third party disappears. It is the latter that mostly solves existing problems while creating new opportunities as well. As it stands today, the healthcare system is highly fragmented. But if healthcare organisations implement the same Operating System at scale, consisting of algorithms, data and a decentralised network, they are also able to coordinate actions at scale and achieve a better outcome than they would be able to as a stand-alone organisation. The information stream between organisations would be dramatically accelerated.
Fortunately, the first examples of decentralised infrastructures in healthcare have already materialised. The Personal Health Train (PHT) concept is currently being deployed to analyse and learn from lung scans of Covid-19 patients, for example. And technologies such as blockchain, AI and Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PET) are being combined more and more often. The latter constitute aids and solutions incorporated into information systems to improve data privacy and security. The combined deployment of modern technologies thereby creates new opportunities in safe application and the unlocking of data. Without bundling sensitive patient data in a single central location.
It begins with experimenting in healthcare itself
Unfortunately, the process of deploying emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain and extended reality remains very gradual at the moment. I have been training high-level officials and management teams in the application of modern technologies for several years now, specifically through practical experiments in small-scale pilots. The healthcare industry will have to start experimenting with these technologies and experiencing their added value for itself. It is important to bridge the gap between the worlds of healthcare and technology; we are yet to fully grasp each other’s potential. The technology is there, the next step is all about experimentation, collaboration and generating trust. Testing new technologies also requires an open mind, the deliberate choice to retain a sense of wonder and exert patience. While realising and recognising that this development process needs time to prove its added value in healthcare practice. This is why it is a good idea to start with a small consortium in order to scale up the application gradually. To facilitate the necessary iterations for large-scale deployment of the technology. At the same time, people are becoming increasingly aware that technology is not a ‘side project’, but rather touches the core of almost any process.
The metaverse as an appealing perspective for healthcare?
New developments will always come and go. After spending an extended period of time in the wondrous world of tech, clear patterns revealed themselves to me. Technologies keep coming back in a new stage of maturity. From Google Glass back in the day to a serious VR application in healthcare. It is a cyclical process (contrary to what the Hype Cycle has us believe sometimes). I cannot always foresee what certain initiatives will lead to. It is likely that I am working on applications that will come back in a more mature form in a couple of years. Take the principle of non-fungible tokens (NTFs), for instance, a type of digital certificate of ownership that can be traded and linked to (digital) objects. It all once began with the game Cryptokitties. A game where you would collect digital cats and trade them each at their own digital value in Ethereum. Today, the NFT market is worth billions. In healthcare, the first applications involving blockchain-based tokens are emerging. Such as blood donor organisations that use tokens to stimulate blood donation as well as registering and tracing samples to improve their stock management.
The fact remains that technologies are becoming increasingly mature and increasingly interconnected. Which is why we shouldn’t focus too much on the separate technologies of the day. They are all pieces of the puzzle for what I call web 3.0 or the Metaverse. A three-dimensional, virtual world that continues to develop gradually. An environment parallel to the present internet, always there are ready to bring us together. To get to know each other, network, learn new skills, build relationship, deliver products and services, collaborate, relax, game, shop and consume. The first initiatives are already here, such as Fortnite, Minecraft and Decentraland. And the first ideas of such worlds are being explored in series such as Black Mirror and Westworld. You could see the Metaverse as the next stage of the present-day internet, the next stage of digitisation. The Metaverse will become as diverse and broad as today’s internet. Even more so. The concept has become increasingly popular in recent months. After all, the corona pandemic habituated us to spend time online in the virtual world. And the same pandemic has caused certain technical building blocks to develop at lightning speed and expand their availability. In addition, people’s mindset has become more accustomed to virtual meetings, virtual entertainment and a virtual social life. It is likely that we will end up visiting virtual hospitals and conducting consultations in the Metaverse, depending on the medical situation and the patient’s needs. Plus, underlying administrative processes will be decentralised and organised much better.
A lot of open standards and open source technology is being used for the digital world of the future. Decentralised systems where all digital applications are properly aligned, can be mutually integrated, are highly interoperable, device-independent and compatible with different types of hardware and software. Just the thing our healthcare industry is looking for. Does that make the Metaverse an appealing perspective for healthcare? Time will tell. But for now, let us experiment and marvel.
- PharmaLedger [Internet]. Available from: https://pharmaledger.eu/
- Treshock M. How the FDA is piloting blockchain for the pharmaceutical supply chain IBM Supply Chain and Blockchain Blog [Internet]. IBM Blockchain announcements. 2020. Available from: https://www.ibm.com/blogs/blockchain/2020/05/how-the-fda-is-piloting-blockchain-for-the-pharmaceutical-supply-chain/
- Opportunities and Challenges of Blockchain Technologies in Health Care BLOCKCHAIN POLICY SERIES. OECD BLOCKCHAIN POLICY Ser. 2020 Dec. Available from: https://www.oecd.org/finance/Opportunities-and-Challenges-of-Blockchain-Technologies-in-Health-Care.pdf