Emerging Technologies

Blockchain and the COVID-19 Pandemic: How Evolving Societal Need Accelerates Emerging Technologies

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many high-value use cases where distributed ledger technology such as blockchain could address immediate global needs and support an accelerated response.

To date, blockchain-enabled solutions have not garnered broad adoption within the healthcare sector, and they are now just beginning to reach pilot and real-world implementation stages. However, people need real-time access to critical information presented in a consistent format from trusted sources. This information can provide an immediate snapshot of the situation of our global society.

Blockchain Solutions in Action

Blockchain technology is anchored by its ability to enable decentralized sharing of verified, trusted and secure information among individuals or organizations. Furthermore, it can be paired with critical security and cryptography to protect the privacy of the users and individuals contributing data while still providing provenance and trust in the shared data.

RELATED: Blockchain in Healthcare

Throughout the past year, several healthcare use cases have gained traction, primarily those centered around the business and administrative side of healthcare. These examples are being tested throughout the current pandemic as ways to streamline and securely exchange and share data in real time.

1. Supply Chain Management

As healthcare organizations have had to adjust to disruptions, high demands for equipment such as ventilators and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), new manufacturers and the ever-present fraudulent and criminal actors, supply chain management has been critical in the response to COVID-19. In terms of blockchain solutions, use cases anchored around supply chain management are considerably more mature within healthcare and other industries and have scaled or shifted focus to address current pandemic-related needs. In highlighting the technology’s role, the Department of Homeland Security listed blockchain managers in food and agriculture as critical infrastructure workers.

In some cases, market suppliers have adjusted their existing blockchain-enabled solutions to help connect non-traditional medical suppliers and healthcare organizations to trusted sources for necessary PPE and medical supplies. The tool allows both buyers and suppliers to obtain a full picture of inventory in a transparent and trusted manner.

Existing pharmaceutical and medical device solutions are also being utilized in the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the FDA’s Drug Supply Chain Security Act pilot project program, several blockchain-enabled pilots have successfully demonstrated solutions for tracking change in ownership of prescription medicines, last-mile tracking of drugs from pharmacy to patient administration and monitoring a pharmaceutical product’s origin and journey from creation to use. These solutions are primed to play a role in the pharmaceutical supply chain as part of the pandemic response.

2. Data Aggregation for Research

A key area of opportunity is in the collection, aggregation and access to data needed to track the virus, interpret trends and provide the necessary research to effectively respond to the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has partnered with major technology companies and governments to launch MiPasa, a global-scale control and communication system powered by blockchain technology, which enables early detection of COVID-19 carriers and infection hotspots through seamless and private information sharing between individuals, state authorities and health institutions.

Blockchain infrastructure also serves as the foundation for an emerging research network. This network allows organizations to share their data with researchers and innovators to test and integrate this data into new solutions and tools. Using a blockchain-powered platform enables data ownership, consent management and auditability to allow for adaptable sharing throughout various regulatory environments.

3. Contact Tracing

In an effort to flatten the curve, many governments are exploring and beginning to adopt contact tracing measures to monitor the reach of exposure of infected people. Since these efforts require the collection of granular, private information about infected parties to understand their movements in the specific time period around their infection, a major consideration for governments is the privacy and data management of the information collected. On the privacy front, blockchain technology can provide certain assurances by decentralizing storage of this information and keeping it only with the user. In the U.S., Coalition, a free app, recently launched where users are able to self-report if they are sick. The app notifies other users of possible interactions with an infected person and prompts appropriate follow-up healthcare. The solution leverages Bluetooth-enabled technology and cryptography to track encounters and generate random anonymous IDs to protect the user’s identity, with all data stored locally on the user’s phone. Similar solutions have been explored in Europe, Africa and Asia.

4. Clinician Credentialing Management

New issues with identity management have brought blockchain solutions to the forefront. With clinicians and healthcare professionals volunteering at hospitals to alleviate workforce demands, there are challenges with verifying credentials in an expedited manner. Several solutions are already in production or have developed a consortium of members with credential information to help streamline this process.

Opportunities for the Future

At the most fundamental level, blockchain technology transfers ownership and the control of data from a centralized source to those contributing the data. Components of the technology facilitate an environment where the data can be trusted, verified and allow for levels of anonymity, enabling organizations to protect individual privacies and collaborate without compromising their intellectual property and data confidentiality.

Beyond the solutions already underway, components of the technology could be applied to broader use cases. The Blockchain Research Institute recently outlined a path for this technology during and following the pandemic. For example, public health needs include tracking infections, deaths, recovery, research and more that could benefit from the provenance and auditability provided by blockchain technology.

Also, as governments consider a future world where an individual must verify immunity or vaccinations, blockchain could offer a solution to protect an individual’s privacy while verifying immunization status. Furthermore, as telehealth expands, there will be new opportunities to expedite credentialing for providers of these services and empower patients to share their health data with new providers to ensure a comprehensive understanding of their health history. Already, an active solution in the U.K. has partnered with NHS and works to connect health data through distributed applications.

Considerations to Future Adoption

Like any emerging technology, several questions and uncertainties impede adoption and scalability of these new solutions.

While we live in unprecedented times and the rush for innovation is expansive, additional education and careful consideration for health organizations vetting blockchain-enabled solutions is still essential. Before a needs assessment is conducted to determine the fit of these solutions, organizations must start with a general understanding about the technology’s capabilities, distilling the facts versus the hype of this technology. There are many assumptions about what a blockchain-enabled solution can and cannot do.

Next, key considerations must be made around how this technology can be thoughtfully integrated into an organization’s existing infrastructure. Organizations should consider a use-case driven approach to assessing the fit of a blockchain-enabled solution for their existing business and clinical needs.

Finally, blockchain technology requires a cultural and paradigm shift toward broader collaboration across traditionally disparate and potentially competitive entities. The technology facilitates a framework that allows organizations to contribute to joint efforts without risking their intellectual property or proprietary information. However, it will still require an intentional change in behavior to successfully work across different business interests toward a common goal.

Thank you to the members of the HIMSS Blockchain in Healthcare Task Force for their various insights and contributions to the monitoring of these efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blockchain in Healthcare

Blockchain and distributed ledger technology are taking hold in healthcare as the industry learns more about the potential to improve patient care and reduce costs.

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