In August, Walmart was awarded a patent that may signal what the future holds for electronic medical records (EMRs). As Walmart wades into the healthcare business, the nation’s largest private employer is exploring blockchain technology’s application for medical records.
“Walmart was one of the first companies to manage behavioral data and consumer-related information, and use that data effectively,” says Ed Hickey, AVP, clinical data and analytics at HealthTrust. “So while we don’t know precisely where Walmart is headed in healthcare—there were reports earlier this year that they were looking to purchase Humana—we know that they are very serious about customer information, and how to unleash its power to improve the customer experience.”
Blockchain technology stores transactional data through a distributed ledger composed of encrypted blocks. Records are visible to credentialed users, who may add to the transactions but not alter or delete them. Transactions are verified collectively and time-stamped, forming an immutable chain.
Walmart’s patent for a blockchain-enabled medical records storage system allows first responders to access patient information in the event of an emergency. With the patented system, patients’ records would be stored on a blockchain database and on a wearable item, such as a bracelet, that could be scanned by a radio-frequency identification (RFID) scanner. In an emergency, first responders could scan the device and access an encrypted public key. A second private key would be a biometric identifier like a retinal scan or fingerprint. After both keys were scanned, a patient’s medical record could be securely accessed.
Walmart has already shown interest in blockchain for uses in its core retail business. Now it joins other non-healthcare companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google in developing blockchain-enabled solutions around medical records.
“Blockchain has the potential to solve the EMR problems experienced by patients, providers and payers—the siloed nature of information that makes it difficult to tie all of the details in the medical record together,” Hickey says. “That one of the leading consumer-centered businesses sees its application for healthcare is interesting. There are plenty of issues to sort through before this patent tells us more than that, but it’s worth paying attention.”