When it comes to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), or the emerging form of digital certificate that certifies an asset as being one-of-a-kind, the world seems to be split into two camps: pro- and anti-NFT camps. Those belonging to the former camp tout it as a novel approach to finance and own digital media; while those against NFTs point to – among many other things- their devastating effects on the climate

But beyond $69.3 million-worth NFT art and relying on technology that consumes as much energy as a whole country, NFTs represent a unique potential in the digital health age: that of patients, rather than companies, owning their own digital healthcare data. With such a level of ownership, patients could leverage its advantage to monetise their data rather than have companies profit off them, as has been traditionally the case. 

Given the novelty of NFTs, their untapped potential in healthcare might not be known, let alone what NFTs are and how they work. This article will walk you through the basics of NFTs, how they can further empower patients in the digital health age, as well as raise concerns pertinent to the technology.

What is an NFT?

Crowning it as the Word of the Year for 2021, dictionary publisher Collins defines a non-fungible token as “a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible.” Creating or “mining” NFT transactions leverage blockchain technology, akin to what cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are based on. 

In short, the technology relies on a decentralised network of computers employing advanced cryptography to verify the validity of a transaction. We previously explored the relevance of blockchain in healthcare and pharma, where we highlighted its ability to secure sensitive medical data and curb counterfeit drugs.

Similar to how NFTs have disrupted the art world, they could positively disrupt the digital health landscape by giving patients unprecedented control over their medical information.

As we dive into the digital health era, personal health sensors and apps equip patients with personalised data so that they can become more proactive in managing their health. But what is still mostly the norm is that these sensitive data are governed by the companies providing these services; and they often profit out of it, oblivious to patients. For example, the pregnancy-tracking app Ovia was found to sell aggregated data of its users to employers. Similarly, 23andMe intends to develop drugs based on the genetic database it amassed from customers who used its genetic testing kits, the latter might not even have been made explicitly aware of such potential use of their data.

It is simply not fair that private companies and institutions make money out of patient data in such a way. If the real paradigm change of digital health – that of empowering patients – takes place (and it does), the same should apply to monetising their health data, and NFTs could change the tides in this regard.

NFT’s potentials in healthcare

Say you’ve decided to order a direct-to-consumer DNA testing kit in order to have a nutrition plan tailored to your genetic makeup by a private company. You also know that the latter might sell your genetic data to third parties for research purposes. But you settle for the service anyway because it’s the most accurate way to get a personalised diet at a relatively affordable price. 

However, by selling your genetic data and that of others, the company could be making millions that they will never share with you. Moreover, as such sensitive data get passed along the transaction chain, the risk for mishandling of the information increases.

Blockchain_Data - Privacy in Digital Health

Now, if your genetic data were minted as NFTs, the information will come with an inherent feature to be tracked. You would be able to see where it ends up, and hold those who used it without your permission accountable since you are the sole owner of the data, as certified by the NFT authentication. Moreover, the NFT owner can enable a feature to earn money whenever a transaction occurs with the data. 

In the aforementioned examples of Ovia and 23andMe, patients whose data are being used by the companies aren’t earning a cent. But with an NFT approach, companies offering digital health services could encourage patients to participate in studies by contributing their data and earning from it. Other third parties interested in utilising the data for research or developing new products could reach out directly to patients on a digital marketplace. The main difference here compared to the traditional approach, is that patients really do have the choice to share their data in a more informed manner.

With the underlying blockchain technology and an NFT certification, the use of patient data could thus be made more transparent and could equip patients with control over their health records.

NFT in medicine: the future or fad? 

While much about NFT in healthcare is still speculative at this point, there are some startups that are exploring this potential. One such company is Aimedis, which has a medical NFT marketplace where patients can participate in transactions involving their health data. The health monitoring app Go!, developed by Enjin and Health Hero, can collect individual activity and wellness data from popular apps like Apple Health, Google Fit, and Fitbit. In doing so, it creates Well-being NFTs, or W-NFTs, imbued with the scarcity of the users’ health data assets. These can even be traded on the open market.

However, there are several potential roadblocks to adopting the technology en masse in the near future, especially in healthcare. As it stands, blockchain technology runs quite inefficiently, with large amounts of energy required for minor transactions. This is further tied to significant greenhouse gas emissions, which add to climate change. As such, NFTs might not be outright commercially viable in the near future. But alternatives for NFT minting are in the works that could use a fraction of the computing power currently involved in their transactions.

Then there is the issue of whether companies offering digital health services will actually want to adopt the technology. They might not be particularly enticed by the idea of sharing their profits with patients, from whom they’ve traditionally been profiting off and not the other way round.

All in all, even though NFTs are still in their infancy, the technology might evolve in the future to become more compelling for patients to favour the agency it provides over their data. There are significant hurdles to be overcome before NFT in healthcare becomes commonplace, but its potentials are unmistakable.

Written by Dr. Bertalan Meskó & Dr. Pranavsingh Dhunnoo

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