The Internet of Things (IoT) will involve the collection of a lot of data, bringing both opportunities and pitfalls to every industry. Detecting invalid data input, whether due to bad actors or mere mistakes will be a requirement. Blockchain-based data integrity solution provide an answer for this today.

In 2001, a pharmacist in my hometown of Kansas City was found to be skimping on his patients’ cancer medications for his own profit. He would simply give each patient less medicine than they had been prescribed, but would charge the full price. The medicine was dispensed in capsules, so the patients didn’t know the difference. Before he was found out, several patients died.

Trust and workflow

Morally, the pharmacist was solely responsible. But from a business point of view, it’s clear that there was a breakdown in the information flow. A doctor (early in the chain) issued a set of instructions (a prescription). A pharmacist (late in the chain) followed a different set of instructions: his own. There was no mechanism in place to confirm the end-to-end integrity of the execution of the initial instructions.

In fact, even if we remove criminal intent from the equation, it’s easy to see how a similar problem could have occurred due to an accidental systems failure. The pharmacist’s scale could have been wrong. The label on the patient’s bottle could have been printed incorrectly. The doctor’s instructions could have been garbled between his office and the pharmacy. Or the the doctor and the pharmacist, both meaning well, might have given the patient conflicting instructions.

Malice, accident, and accountability

All of these failures are failures of data integrity. There is no weak password, no door left unlocked, no malicious outsider. Even the corrupt pharmacist isn’t functionally that different from a broken machine.

That being said, deliberate or accidental changes to data will always be another reason for validating data integrity. Even in a digital world, our corrupt pharmacist could try to change the data in the pharmacy's system to make it look like he received a different prescription than he actually did. If this happened, the system would need to effectively say: "A change has been made. Hm... Under what circumstances is it acceptable for a change to be made to prescription data? It looks like the change came from inside the pharmacy. And the data for the same prescription ID in the doctor's office database hasn't changed. Something is wrong here. We'd better immediately alert the patient, the doctor, and all relevant organizations."

Blockchain technology and the assurance of data integrity

That kind of automatic troubleshooting requires a blockchain. The comparison of the pharmacist's data and the doctor's data must happen in a context in which there is no ambiguity about what happened first. The pharmacist should not be able to say: "My data is unchanged; it's the doctor who changed his data." Because of blockchain technology, that lie would not be effective. A hash of the doctor's current data, compared with a hash of his previous data (timestamped on the blockchain, and residing simultaneously on all the computers that maintain that blockchain) would show a match. A hash of the pharmacist's current data, compared to a hash of his previous, timestamped data on the blockchain, would show a discrepancy.

It should go without saying that every organization involved, from the hospital to the insurance company, would pay a premium for a service that ensured the integrity of data in a healthcare situation like this one.

Data integrity and the Internet Of Things

Consider how IoT, in conjunction with blockchain-based verification, could make this situation both safer and more profitable:

The doctor enters the prescription in a secure app. The app, treating the prescription as data, makes a hash of it. The hash is then sent to a secure, blockchain-based, off-site distributed database. Meanwhile, the app also sends the prescription to the pharmacy. At the pharmacy, the prescription is hashed again, and that hash is sent to the same offsite data security center. If the two hashes don’t match, then we know there’s a problem. The pharmacists’ inventory management system, ledger, and cash register might all be integrated into the same system.

The future of data integrity

Eventually, every device involved, from the doctor’s stethoscope to the patient’s medicine cabinet, might be wired as well: all of them transmitting and recording data, all of it part of a secure and continuously verified dataset. Each facet of the complex system that is modern healthcare has the potential to become streamlined into a cohesive system that is not just more convenient, but safer.

Those service providers who are hooked into the system will be able to deliver a better service, with better outcomes. Those who aren’t will eventually realize that they are the ones taking the risk with their patient's lives.

Verifying the integrity of your data inputs can be one of the most important steps toward overall data integrity, especially in a regulated industry. Find out more about Ericsson's solutions for regulatory and process compliance.

Also, read on how we get to a world of absolute data integrity. We examine a solution based on blockchain technology in this eBook:

Download the Blockchain and Data Integrity eBook!

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Michael Bennett Cohn

Michael Bennett Cohn was head of digital product and revenue operations at Condé Nast, where he created the company's first dynamic system for digital audience cross-pollination. At a traditional boutique ad agency, he founded and ran the digital media buying team, during which time he planned and executed the digital ad campaign that launched the first Amazon Kindle. At Federated Media, where he was the first head of east coast operations, he developed and managed conversational marketing campaigns for top clients including Dell, American Express, and Kraft. He also has a master's degree in cinema-television from the University of Southern California. He lives in Brooklyn.

Michael Bennett Cohn