What the #$@&*! Is Blockchain?

by Jason S. Brinkley, PhD, MA, MS

On the Brink addresses topics related to data, analytics, and visualizations on personal health and public health research. This column explores current practices in the health arena and how both the data and mathematical sciences have an impact. (The opinions and views represented here are the author’s own and do not reflect any group for which the author has an association.)

Jason S. Brinkley, PhD, MA, MS

“We leverage the power of AI and blockchain technology along with our custom predictive analytics platform to disrupt the health care marketplace.”

[Engage delete button.]

The problem when you try to stay up on all things related to data and health is that you have to look at a lot of junk email. Messages like this make me wonder whether they were crafted by an actual human or if I’m being trolled by someone throwing darts at a jargon board. This particular email came at the end of a week that seemed to be flooded with messages that all had the same buzzword; no matter where I turned I kept running into it, and this particular phrase finally forced me to say the question out loud (in my best Q*bert-ese): “What the #$@&*! is blockchain?”

So that, dear readers, is what we are going to tackle today in the simplest language possible.

There is an in-depth article that is a good read about the ins and outs of blockchain here, but, in essence, blockchain is simply an online ledger. Imagine that you have put a record of transactions online and multiple people keep track of it like one would do to, say, a report in Google documents. It can be accessed and added to by many different parties. The main difference is that the technology used behind a blockchain means that the ledger doesn’t actually live in just one place but in many places across the internet and it is designed in a way that keeps private information secure.

So why is an online and secure internet ledger system useful? … Because we catalog and document so many different things these days. Part of the secret of Bitcoins success is that they have a ledger that records transactions. If you decide to use an Uber or make a purchase on a smartphone app, those apps really do not need all of your personal information; they just need to know that you are who you say you are and to have a place to record their transaction with you. Blockchains can be separate from banks and other financial middlemen, so it can be cheap and allow people to pull data from a lot of different places into one ledger system.

What is the potential for disrupting health care? Most of us get our overall health care from a variety of sources: primary doctors, pediatricians for our kids, dentists, pharmacies, etc. One application to blockchain could be to find a way to put all the health-related spending in one place (say, for transactions from a health savings or flexible spending account). What if we moved beyond a ledger for transactions and used blockchain as a ledger for health care services or health care records? Or it could be that hospitals and other entities start an online ledger of procedures and costs that allows customers to better “shop” for the location of their next elective health procedure. Balancing data sharing and individual privacy has long been a stumbling block in our knowledge on the US health system. Creating open and secure online ledger systems could be a turning point in lowering costs, increasing competition, developing greater insights into what services people use, and finding gaps in the system.

The future of this technology has a lot of people really excited, so everyone seems to want to get in on the ground floor and be known as “the expert.” As for me, I just wanted to be prepared for the next dinner party or work social and not come off as some new kid on the blockchain (see what I did there?).

Until next month, let’s keep the conversation rolling on Twitter. Message me at @DrJasonBrinkley with your best blockchain pun (H & R Blockchain? Chip off the old blockchain?) using the hashtag #blockchainpun.


Jason S. Brinkley, PhD, MS, MA is a Senior Researcher and Biostatistician at Abt Associates Inc. where he works on a wide variety of data for health services, policy, and disparities research. He maintains a research affiliation with the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute and serves on the executive committee for the NC Chapter of the American Statistical Association and the Southeast SAS Users Group. Follow him on Twitter. [Full Bio]

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