Personal health data collected from mobile and wearable technology can provide important information to healthcare providers and medical researchers, but this data must be protected to ensure the privacy of users. The vulnerabilities of current health data systems prompted researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing to forge a user-centric, blockchain-based health data sharing solution for mobile health applications to improve the convenience and security of transmitting health data.

Blockchain technology originated from the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. It is a data structure architecture kept consistent by ‘blocks’ stored and maintained by every device connected to the blockchain network. These ‘blocks’ are permanent time-stamped transaction records where each block links to the preceding block to create a ledger, allowing users to track and verify all submissions to the system.

Blockchain is gaining attention across industries because it maintains both security and privacy. It relies on pseudoanonymity (replacing names with identifiers) and public key infrastructure to maintain the privacy of the users. The structure secures personal data from cyberattacks while still keeping a visible record of where data in the blockchain originated.

IEEE Spectrum explains the potential of blockchain technology

In the blockchain-based system created by the research team, wearable devices collect personal health data, such as physical activity, heartbeat and sleeping conditions from users. Data is then transmitted to a cloud database hosted on a secure platform through a mobile application. To protect privacy, users can manage all personal health data and are responsible for designating the level of access healthcare providers and other third parties have to the cloud server.

The blockchain network is connected to the cloud database, and the network records all data updates and requests in the cloud. The researchers used a blockchain network built on the Hyperledger Fabric, which is an open source blockchain with control access designations that certify any participating devices in the network.

To facilitate scalable and efficient data processing and authentication, the researchers developed a Merkle tree-based method for organizing health records in the blockchain. The Merkle method orders submitted data by the time of submission, and then organizes data for simpler management.

Blockchain mHealth

Figure 1: User centric personal health data sharing.

“With this design, data is verified and protected for patients and other parties,” said Xueping Liang, professor at the Institute of Information Engineering at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Each time there is a personal health data submission, a record is generated on the blockchain. Users can safely submit the results of certain treatments and suggestions from healthcare providers, while providers and health insurance companies can trust information on the blockchain because data is permanently recorded so users cannot hide or modify it.”

To test their system, the researchers evaluated its scalability and efficiency in processing data in the blockchain. The results below demonstrate the system’s ability to quickly validate and transmit large volumes of data.

mHealth blockchain results

Figure 2: Average times for data submission (a) and data validation (b)

To improve scalability, the team is experimenting with consensus algorithms and peer-to-peer communication. They are also working with hospitals to promote the system and are looking for collaborations with other organizations to refine their work.

Mobile health research is just one example of a growing focus on blockchain across the healthcare industry. As systems like this advance, blockchain has the potential to make significant improvements in healthcare data sharing. Beyond personal health data collection, blockchain can make health records immutable, which would allow hospitals and insurance companies to use health records with more confidence for faster patient and insurance claim processing.

For more information on blockchain, visit the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.