Things are pretty crazy in the world right now with the novel coronavirus pandemic. We need innovative solutions to stop its spread, bring people back to health, and eradicate the disease. Blockchain is being used in healthcare already across the globe, but this technology also offers a potential weapon in the fight. Let’s take a look at some ways blockchain could help control the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fighting coronavirus with health care blockchains: Permissionless vs. Permissioned
Before we dive into how blockchain can help in the fight against the pandemic, we should start by distinguishing between permissionless and permissioned blockchains.
A permissionless or public blockchain is one that anyone can access. The bitcoin blockchain, for example, is permissionless. Using the bitcoin blockchain explorer, anyone can view transactions. Further, anyone can mine new blocks, validate transactions, and add new transactions to the bitcoin blockchain. A permissioned or private blockchain, by contrast, limits who can conduct these activities.
People don’t want their personally identifiable information and protected health information to be publicly available, however, so this information legally can’t be stored on a permissionless (public) blockchain. It can only be stored on a permissioned (private) blockchain.
Blockchain could improve disease surveillance
Identifying and tracking new diseases and their spread is an integral part of preventing and managing epidemics and pandemics. Without complete information, it can be difficult to tell how serious a disease is or how quickly it’s spreading.
We’ve seen this firsthand with COVID-19. As far as we know now, the first identified patient started having symptoms on December 1, 2019. Still, it wasn’t until December 31 that the local health authority alerted the public, The Lancet reports. And more than three weeks passed until officials shut down the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began. By that time, the disease had already spread across the globe.
How could a permissioned blockchain help in future pandemics, or even the one we’re experiencing right now? Envision a secure worldwide database where doctors, nurses, and public health agencies could all enter anonymized data about patients’ symptoms. Such a system could thwart politically motivated efforts to hide emerging patterns of disease. It could help scientists and public health experts identify unusual surges in disease activity, unusual symptoms, abnormal clusters of symptoms, and other early indicators of potential epidemics or pandemics.
This process is called disease surveillance, and it’s already practiced worldwide. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control even started exploring potential uses for blockchain back in 2017. A team was developing proofs of concept for blockchain-based public health surveillance applications.
Disease surveillance doesn’t yet work as well as it could. Disease surveillance systems work better if key public- and private-sector organizations in different countries can access and contribute to them. Also important is ensuring the accuracy, completeness, and security of disease surveillance data and reliable access to the system that stores this data.
Blockchain’s fundamental characteristics mean it could be ideally suited to disease surveillance. Fast, transparent data-sharing between the CDC, foreign health departments, state and local health departments, hospitals, and clinics could improve health crisis management.
Blockchain could improve medical supply-chain management
The integrity and efficiency of global supply chains are what allow vaccines, medications, test kits, masks, hospital beds, ventilators, hand sanitizer, and yes, toilet paper to get to the places with the greatest need in the right quantities in the shortest time. Companies need to track the origin, temperature, shipment date, location, and the delivery date of products in the supply chain. A blockchain’s distributed ledger can store identical copies of data about each part of the supply chain in a way that prevents data tampering.
Essential supplies can’t get to doctors and patients if the supply chain breaks down, however. One way companies mitigate issues arising from breaks in the supply chain is by monitoring all stops in the supply chain. This is sometimes referred to as supply chain transparency. However, one issue with supply chain transparency is that sometimes a company’s suppliers don’t want to be so transparent with certain supply chain information (such as the identities of their sub-suppliers) because they feel it gives them a competitive advantage to keep this information private.
A permissioned blockchain could alleviate such concerns by allowing information necessary to ensure business continuity, such as regions where raw materials are sourced, to be available to companies who need this information without revealing suppliers’ confidential sub-supplier information. This way, companies that provide medical supplies can promptly implement contingency plans when, say, a virus breaks out in a region where some of their raw materials are sourced.
Blockchain could also potentially aid in tracking and ensuring that goods and materials reach the appropriate destinations. One instance specifically related to coronavirus involves relief donations and making sure that donated supplies get to the places they’re needed most. Hyperchain, an enterprise-grade blockchain platform developed by Hangzhou Qulian Technology Company in China, has leveraged blockchain during the coronavirus outbreak to make sure donated medical supplies reach hospitals in central China, according to Cointelegraph.
Another area of interest is preventing counterfeiting using blockchain. Imagine that scientists develop an effective vaccine to protect us against COVID-19. Now imagine that a nefarious opportunist sees the potential to earn a profit from manufacturing and distributing a fake vaccine.
At best, this vaccine could be made from an inert substance that wouldn’t harm the recipient directly but would harm them indirectly by failing to protect them from the coronavirus. At worst, the counterfeit vaccine itself could sicken or kill people. IBM has been working on blockchain-based efforts to track the life cycle of prescription drugs and prevent counterfeiting to help keep patients safe.
Another possibility is that a careless mistake could be made in producing a legitimate vaccine. Blockchain technology could help track down the source of the error to minimize the damage through a faster recall.
Blockchain can help reduce medical mistakes and speed up health insurance claims
In the United States, the insurance company Anthem has started rolling out a blockchain-based platform to let patients securely access and share their medical data, according to Forbes. Also, the CDC has worked with IBM on a blockchain project that would collect electronic health records in a way that protects confidentiality by allowing patients to limit who can access their information.
Better medical data sharing through electronic health records can lead to a faster and more accurate diagnosis. It can help identify a patient’s unique risk factors before deciding what treatment to deliver. It can prevent duplicate testing, medication errors, and allergic reactions. These benefits can lead to better patient outcomes and can help prevent deadly medical errors. Storing electronic health records on a blockchain can make that data harder and costlier to hack, which helps protect sensitive personal and health information. If doctors and patients are assured that this sensitive information is protected, they are more likely to implement EHR.
During the coronavirus pandemic, insurers in China and Hong Kong have used blockchain-based platforms to speed up the claims process and reduce face-to-face contact from paper document delivery, according to the South China Morning Post. A fully electronic and automated claims process is not only faster; it’s less expensive. Making the administrative and bureaucratic aspects of health care more efficient means more resources can be available for actually providing care. During a pandemic, when resources may be limited, this efficiency is more important than ever.
Minimizing human and economic costs in pandemics with blockchain
Blockchain seems to hold serious promise for slowing disease transmission, improving care, and saving lives in a pandemic. In some areas, such as donations, it’s already proving its value. In other areas, such as disease surveillance, applications don’t yet seem developed enough for use in the coronavirus 2019 pandemic. We are, after all, talking about the health care field, where many providers still use fax machines. But the seriousness of COVID-19 could motivate faster developments in health care blockchains that could be invaluable the next time we face a deadly, fast-spreading communicable disease.