May 14th, 2018
Bitcoin, Medicine, and More
What’s the big deal about Bitcoin and digital currency? For the past year, my husband (who has a business background) has been enthusiastically researching digital currency. Thus, the terms Bitcoin (BTC) and MaidSafeCoin (MAID) have become commonplace in my household for some time. But, to be honest, I hadn’t been paying much attention to any of it until recently. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I don’t listen when my husband talks. Rather, my medically trained mind tends to wander due to an inaptitude for many business and technological concepts.
With all the Bitcoin buzz and a New Year’s resolution to be more up to date on current events, I attempted to become informed. I asked my husband to, once again, break down this whole digital currency thing for me. About 2 minutes into his explanation (I’m sure he could see my mind wandering), he paused and said, “You know what, why don’t I just show you how it works.” And, with that, I was buying (a fraction of) a Bitcoin.
I started by creating an account on Coinbase. This was easy and only required verification of my email address and phone number. I then linked it to my bank account. With a click of a button, I was the proud owner of 0.0021 Bitcoin (worth US$25). Actually, I had to wait a few days for the transaction to process, but it was less complicated than I imagined. By creating an account, I also acquired a public address that consists of a long string of numbers and letters (for example, mine is 166ZUjHuWRGBFm71irtEXLhJRKCv4JooqM). While I won’t be committing this to memory anytime soon, I learned that the public address allows for easy transfer of digital payments from one party to another.
A Frightening Revelation
With my newly acquired (though, admittedly still minimal) knowledge, I wondered how Bitcoin might affect healthcare. It only took about 30 seconds of internet research to realize that Bitcoin and digital currency are already very much affecting healthcare. I read an article that detailed a cyberattack on the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS). During the attack, hackers created an electronic lockdown that affected the NHS and then demanded a Bitcoin ransom to release it (N Engl J Med 2017; 377:409).
Another article detailed a very recent cyberattack on a hospital in Indiana that targeted more than 1400 files. The hospital paid 4 Bitcoins (about $47,000) to hackers to regain access to their files (Health IT News 2018 Jan 16; [e-pub]). The reports of these attacks went on and on — institutions in Texas, California, and Kentucky are all recent victims. Each story detailed some combination of patient record and computer access involvement, and many involved Bitcoin ransom requests.
WHAT? This is a big deal! My simple quest to learn about a trendy form of currency led me to recognize a very serious threat to healthcare system security. As I continued to read through more accounts of recent cyberattacks, I felt embarrassed about my obliviousness up to this point. I worried about the seemingly routine nature of these attacks. Are we all just sitting ducks waiting for our healthcare information to be breached?
Hope For The Future
With a sense of urgency, I again consulted my husband. “Did you know this was happening?” I asked. He was excited about my continued interest in the topic and began catching me up. It turns out other people are (understandably!) worried about this, too. Many companies are attempting to create programs using Blockchain — the technology upon which Bitcoin is based — to improve data security.
One company called MaidSafe, he explained, is taking an entirely different and exciting approach to solving this problem. They are currently developing a new technology using datachains to create a SAFEnetwork which is, essentially, a decentralized, anonymous internet. The network data is encrypted, broken into pieces, and stored across many locations, making it anonymous and secure beyond existing systems. The live version could possibly launch in 2018 and holds great promise for countless applications including the safe keeping of healthcare information.
As previously noted, my knowledge of technology is limited at best, and I don’t claim to be an expert on this topic. The above explanations are likely drastically oversimplified, but I feel it is important to discuss the concepts and what is being done to combat this threat to healthcare security. In the meantime, I still feel like a sitting duck. However, it’s encouraging that people are working to come up with a solution, and hopefully one will be available soon.