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Assessing Bitcoin’s benefits, security risks in healthcare

By Patrick Ouellette

- Because of the prevalence of medical identity fraud in the healthcare industry, healthcare providers are beginning to think outside of the box as to how to keep their patients’ data private. San Francisco physician Paul Abramson has made headlines of late for allowing patients to pay for services using Bitcoin, a decentralized form of digital currency, at his private practice, My Doctor Medical Group. Though Abramson believes Bitcoin is a safer option than having patients use credit card for payment, there are certainly security and regulatory questions to be answered about Bitcoin.

Before deciding what this means for healthcare patient privacy, it’s important to review Bitcoin’s history of benefit and risk, as well as recent developments in federal perception of the technology. Bitcoin has been a polarizing technology since its inception in 2008, as Forbes notes, when open-source developers, named Satoshi Nakamoto, created a system of electronically exchanging monetary value in a supposedly anonymous manner and without needing a financial institution.

The technology has had its ebbs and flows since then and there have been inconsistent messages from Congress as to whether Bitcoin will be federally regulated. According to slashgear.com, a Senate Committee on Homeland Security promised in August to “crack down” on this type of money exchange, but come November Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke claimed that the federal government will not regulate the decentralized currency.

Assuming Bernanke’s comments hold true, from a healthcare perspective, some may feel as though these virtual currencies are the technology equivalent of the “wild west” because of this question of jurisdiction and regulation. In spite of cryptography advancements, current privacy and security concerns are legitimate, as hackers accessed a Bitcoin wallet back in August after finding an Android mobile security gap. Given the popularity in mobile usage among patients and clinical staff in healthcare, apprehension in using Bitcoin consistently for patient payment would be understandable. What’s interesting is Abramson says that, in addition to patient demand, the practice chose Bitcoin because of its privacy and security strengths:

Your personal and business information is protected behind the HIPAA medical privacy regulations and our even-stricter practice policies. Our medical director Paul Abramson MD is a long-time advocate of personal privacy rights, and is committed to respecting the privacy needs of the most discriminating clientele.

My Doctor Medical Group is now pleased to announce that we accept payment for medical services in Bitcoin, the virtual currency that offers heightened security and enhanced privacy. While it does take some extra effort to have complete anonymity using Bitcoin, it’s certainly a large improvement over a credit or debit card.

However, Abramson isn’t the only U.S. healthcare provider to offer “cryptocurrency” as a form of patient payment. The others on the list include Vanity Cosmetic Surgery in Florida, Elite Body Sculpture in Beverly Hills, Ca., MindSci Psychiatric in New York and Fertility Care in California. Abramson’s decision to use Bitcoin lines up with those specialty providers in that My Doctor Medical Group is an out-of-network, fee-for-service practice. So there seems to be a niche for Bitcoin in healthcare for non-network care providers. In fact, one interesting trend, similar to Google Hangouts for medical advice, is CoinMD, where you can ask doctors medical questions and get answers. If answered, patients can then pay with Bitcoin, according to Wired.

Abramson’s announcement likely won’t be groundbreaking in the sense that providers will be lining up to offer Bitcoin. But more than anything, it’s a reminder that organizations already take risks using credit cards as payment, proven by the issues with credit card and identity fraud in healthcare, and they’re looking for alternatives. The jury is still out on whether Bitcoin is a viable long-term answer in healthcare.

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