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Aaron Brown

The Blockchain Is Starting to Live Up to Its Potential

The digital database has moved beyond cryptocurrencies and is being used in everything from health care to elections.

The blockchain has moved beyond cryptocurrencies and into everyday life.

The blockchain has moved beyond cryptocurrencies and into everyday life.

Photographer: Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The divide is wide between people who say cryptocurrency will transform society and those who find no substance in the entire field. Lost between the extremes is the reality that hundreds of billions of dollars of applications are operating today, mostly in boring, niche “blockchain” applications few people notice. It’s worth taking a survey of them to get some idea of what the future might bring, at least in the near term. (Spoiler alert: the outlook is bright.)  

A blockchain is a digital database, or ledger, used to record information and transactions in a collaborative manner. While it’s more complex and expensive to run than a traditional database created and maintained by a central party, it has important advantages in security and public trust. Blockchains are more secure, because no individual or entity can change or view any data except with the appropriate cryptographic private key. No company or IT worker or hacker or court order or disgruntled ex-spouse or drug company has access to your data without your permission. Almost all successful cryptocurrencies are based on blockchains, but blockchains need not have any ties to crypto to function.

One major application is personal medical information. Your medical data is fragmented among different providers, test companies, insurers, pharmacies, public health agencies and other entities, often leading to frustration, security breaches and mistakes. There are traditional database solutions such as MyChart, but they are being challenged by blockchain competitors like Patientory, Nebula Genomics, BurstIQ and MedicalChain. Instead of MyChart having to sign information sharing deals with every possible entity and every patient, blockchain solutions operate peer-to-peer. As long as any pair of participants use the service — you and your doctor, your insurance company and your testing lab, your pharmacy and your urgent care clinic — they can communicate seamlessly and securely.