The use of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to manage health data could give patients greater ownership of their health and improve data transparency in medical research and clinical care, according to clinicians from Singapore public healthcare group SingHealth.
In Singapore, health data of individuals is currently held – and shared when necessary – by healthcare providers, research institutions, insurance companies and government bodies. But with the use of NFTs, patients will have more control over the storage and use of their health data, shifting the custody and sharing of health data to individuals.
This enables people to engage in their health journey more proactively, which has shown to produce better healthcare outcomes in the long run, the clinicians noted in a January 2023 paper published in Nature Medicine.
Like digital assets being traded as commercial NFTs today, NFTs for health data can be minted, exchanged and stored with blockchain technology, bearing the same features of uniqueness, transparency and interoperability.
Similar to how cryptocurrencies are traded with mobile wallets, each patient can own, store and share their health data as NFTs using a health wallet, making this mode of data management easy yet secure and private.
The key difference between existing commercial NFT marketplaces and a blockchain ledger dedicated to exchanging health data is that a health data ledger can be programmed to prohibit public viewing of its data.
When patients need to share health data with a healthcare provider, they will need to grant healthcare providers access to their data. mitigating any unauthorised access and use of data stored in personal health applications and institutional databases.
For researchers, having patients share health data as NFTs will also ensure transparency and accuracy of healthcare research data, thanks to the traceable and unalterable nature of the blockchain. This means researchers can be certain of the authenticity of data being used in their research, leading to greater data integrity and better research outcomes.
The SingHealth clinicians said the same technology can be applied to other areas of healthcare, such as pharmaceuticals, where every drug produced can be encoded and stored on a blockchain ledger.
From the point of production to delivery, the drug can be tracked throughout the entire supply chain. This will help consumers to identify counterfeit drugs, as well as prevent their misuse by healthcare providers and patients.
But before the use of NFTs to manage health data can become a reality, there is a need for technology infrastructure, such as a blockchain-enabled “biodata” platform, along with safeguards to ensure data security and mitigate risks such as thefts which have hit some commercial NFT platforms.
“Using NFTs and blockchain technology to build a secure healthcare data exchange platform will greatly impact the way data is handled in both healthcare research and clinical pathways,” said Teo Zhen Ling, lead author of the paper and ophthalmology resident at the Singapore National Eye Centre, an eye specialist institution under SingHealth.
“At present, we see great potential for its application in areas such as clinical and pharmaceutical trials, where the ability to verify the authenticity of patient data is extremely vital to the accuracy of research findings,” she said.
“It will also enable us to ensure patient compliance in research trials where IoMT [internet of medical things] is being used to monitor and collect data on health activity and vital signs. Importantly, beyond research settings, the ability for patients to access and own their data supports patient autonomy and increases patients’ engagement in their own care.”