We are living in a world of increased surveillance. Constant CCTV recording, Internet and mobile phone monitoring and now Google Glass – is it possible to live in the modern age and maintain privacy on any level? Aside from quitting your job and moving to a desert island, what safeguards can you put in place to keep personal information away from prying eyes?
As the healthcare industry is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, with hopes of a ‘paperless NHS’ by 2015, a key argument against the introduction of online personal health records concerns privacy and confidentiality for patients. In spite of sterling efforts to show how safe and secure details of our bodily functions will be kept under the new system, scepticism remains in regards to how this information may be used and exploited.
One potential solution to the issue of privacy in healthcare is the use of Bitcoin as payment for medical products and services. From the ashes of a collapsed economy rose a digital currency without government dependency, expensive intermediaries or the chance of rapid inflation. As a method of conducting transactions, Bitcoin not only offers a greater level of anonymity but, in the absence of banks or credit card companies, a significantly cheaper way to buy and sell.
Could Bitcoin and other digital currencies change the way we approach one of the most intimate aspects of our lives, our health?
Privacy Protection for Patients
Several clinics around the world are already accepting Bitcoin as a form of payment. San Francisco based doctor Paul Abramson was one of the first. It is rather fitting that a computer programmer and electrical engineer turned doctor would become a Bitcoin pioneer for the medical profession.
On their website, My Doctor Medical Group explains that the practice strives to offer the highest level of confidentiality and discretion to their patients: Paul Abramson has a ‘long standing interest in privacy rights for individuals’.
But one important part of the confidentiality puzzle is payment. Using a credit or debit card to pay for services exposes your private information to the financial system and can’t be easily controlled. And it’s not always convenient or safe to carry around cash or other items of value. So My Doctor Medical Group is now pleased to announce that we accept payment for medical services in Bitcoin, the virtual currency that offers potentially 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. Abramson states that the option to pay with Bitcoin gives his patients peace of mind, particularly those being treated for substance abuse. Ironically, after using the currency to purchase illegal drugs online, some addicts had a few Bitcoin spare with which to seek help.
The following is transcript from a radio interview with marketplace.org: One of our specialties in our medical practice is addiction treatment for things like opiates, alcohol and other substances. A number of patients were previously obtaining their substances from the Silk Road, that dark Internet site that went out of business (it was shut down) where it was required to pay in Bitcoin to buy things illicitly. And when it went out of business some patients were stuck without a good source of high quality drugs for their habit. And that actually motivated a couple of them to want to get into drug treatment to deal with their problem and they happened to have leftover Bitcoin for which to pay.
Apart from Doctor Abramson, other private practices have started accepting Bitcoin too. Understandably, many of the service providers involved have a customer base interested in keeping their care a secret from friends, family and employers. Most of us don’t mind who knows we have caught the flu, but what about HIV, a nose job, Botox, a hair transplant or treatment for depression? Disclosure of private information on credit card statements could have serious long-term ramifications for patients.
One Harley Street clinic recently made headlines for being among the first businesses to embrace Bitcoin in London. In December Vinci Hair Clinic accepted payment for a hair transplant for 11.538461 BTC. Unsurprisingly, the Bitcoin customer chose to remain anonymous. Salvar Bjornsson, managing director of the clinic, chose to start accepting Bitcoin due to the high level of demand: ‘We started to take bitcoin seriously in November when we got inundated with requests to pay in bitcoins’ Also, with a high number of international clientele the Harley Street clinic claim that Bitcoins solve the problems of transferring money to the UK caused by restrictions imposed by banks.
Bitcoin’s Charitable Potential
Some researchers are hailing the crypto-currency as a way to generate donations for medical projects. Cancer research initiative Project Marilyn is fuelling this trend by encouraging the Bitcoin community to open up their wallets and give generously.
Project Marilyn is working to develop the anticancer compound 9DS through open source. Since none of the molecules produced will be patented, many more people in the world could benefit from the results of the research.
Disillusioned with the pharmaceutical industry and traditional methods of scientific funding, Issac Yonemoto believes to have found an ally in the Bitcoin community, as the digital currency also started life on open-source software.
The Bitcoin protocol itself started on open-source software to bootstrap its trust model. So I think bitcoin users understand the other benefits of open source.
With Bitcoin still in its infancy, fundraising in this way has been difficult for the project. Nevertheless, Yonemoto is convinced of the currency’s potential to ease some of the challenges involved in government-funded scientific research and change the world for the better. But this is only possible if Bitcoin becomes a mainstream form of currency: By donating to this you’re helping to legitimize bitcoin as a transaction medium. One of my dreams is to be able to finance an original anti-cancer research idea – I have one percolating now – entirely off of Bitcoin.