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Blockchain Could Ease Image Sharing and Protect Patient Privacy

Encrypted chain links could speed up and reduce costs of medical image sharing among providers.

Valerie Brown, Contributor
Thursday, September 13, 2018


Medical imaging presents challenges in electronic data management and sharing. In the April 1 issue of Health Informatics, UCLA-based dermatologist Vishal Patel suggested that blockchain technology could minimize privacy concerns and the expense of sharing medical images within and across networks.

Blockchains, associated mainly with bitcoin digital currency, are decentralized networks comprising nodes rather than the more traditional hierarchical networks. Transaction data are transmitted in blocks and are visible in public ledgers but remain anonymous. Each block, encrypted by the sender using a public key, can only be accessed by the receiver using a matching private key. It is then sent inside the next block in an irreversible, encrypted and unchangeable form, making each transaction part of a series of interconnected links.

Patel used the example of radiography. In some 15 percent of X-ray procedures today, patients still need to physically carry their films with them as they switch health care providers, and when the data is digitized, the transfer process often involves third-party handlers that make these transactions unnecessarily cumbersome. In a blockchain, the patient’s unique identifier can directly authenticate the source, and the public-private key system can both authorize and validate a transaction. The images can remain in a central repository operated by a third party that does not control access.

Patel thinks blockchain can eliminate the middleman and preserve a patient’s power to decide who has access to his or her medical information. It can also provide a public record of transactions for accountability without sacrificing privacy.