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How blockchain can prevent the next global pandemic

Posted by The HCI Group on April 29, 2020 at 12:29 PM

Digital unplugged (18)

In today’s post, The HCI Group’s Ken Bradberry gives his thoughts on the importance of data access during the COVID-19 pandemic and how Blockchain provides the key to prevention in the future.

In these unprecedented times, while we are all sheltering and taking every precaution to protect ourselves, our families and our neighbors from this virus, our healthcare heroes are all working to save lives. We can look back on how this pandemic occurred and hopefully learn lessons that we can apply to avoid this situation in the future. What has been paramount throughout this event is the importance of access to accurate and timely data. 

Data Sharing During COVID-19

Shared and open data has been critical during the COVID-19 pandemic to clearly understand the spread of the virus. It also gives clear insight into the impact in our communities, throughout the United States and the world. From the White House and State Governments to the World Health Organization (WHO), there has been inconsistency and frustration about the immutability of data and the lack of data sharing. Access to reliable data is essential for analytical experts and data scientists to provide accurate and timely insight to our leadership and our healthcare experts to leverage and make decisions that can impact millions of lives. 

Imagine if we had a secure method of accessing and sharing siloed health and geographic information between healthcare agencies, state authorities and other countries (such as China and Italy). We require an approach that breaks down the typical access barriers, encourages the data owners to readily share without concerns and allows us to gain access to data that we can trust. However, there is still a lack of integrated, verified and reliable data sources.

How Blockchain Can Bring All the Key Data Together

There are a lot of blockchain 101 resources on the internet, but the distributed network where all the members have a copy of the transaction database can address these issues. With blockchain, distributed ledger participants must agree on changes by consensus. The database file in a blockchain is composed of blocks, where each block includes a cryptographic signature of the previous block, creating an immutable record. The distributed nature of the blockchain network verifies the integrity of the transactions. Just as Bitcoin was the answer to removing financial institutions and government control over financial transactions, we can do the same with healthcare data. Bitcoin used an open source blockchain to provide this anonymous, peer to peer network. An enterprise blockchain network designed for healthcare can provide a stable platform for interoperability and access. This applies to other critical assets, as well as data. 

The concept of tokenization is the process of converting some form of asset into a token that can be moved, recorded, or stored on a blockchain. We can tokenize unique assets like a patient’s identity and a non-unique asset, such as a ventilator or PPE inventories. Consider this from a supply chain perspective and all the challenges we have encountered identifying what medical equipment we have available. For instance, the number of available ventilators, the parts and approved assembly instructions to manufacturers to build new devices if needed, inventories of available Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and how to distribute with provenance assured to the needed locations.

For countries who are less likely to share official information, peer to peer sharing can provide validation where healthcare organizations and workers have an opportunity to communicate anonymously. A consensus approach helps ensure the accuracy of the data being provided. By reconciling disparate data sources, such as data from WHO or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and others , we ensure updated or new data matches the original data or information provided. It also encourages validation by key healthcare leaders and experts who can report on discrepancies or questionable data.

Blockchain is so important here because it’s a method that can verify the data and allow a variety of individuals and organizations to collaborate and use for research in a very orchestrated way, especially when data of this nature is changing frequently. 

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The Role Blockchain Can Play Going Forward

The key is getting access to siloed health information that is immutable and has consensus-based validation from the blockchain network. It requires a provenance that can be tracked back to the source of the data without jeopardizing the identities of the originators. Tracking back to the earliest occurrence of the virus, gaining a head start to contain the spread and provide guidance across the globe will make a significant difference in the fight against this virus.     

The use of smart contracts which is an additional add-on feature of blockchain could potentially save time and resources, based on what data is captured, smart contracts can be coded to recognize conditions and trigger rapid responses based on rules or certain conditions. This can expedite a response to an increase in COVID-19 cases in a location or a protocol developed to send critical medical equipment to locations that are more likely to need additional resources.

The title of this post is how blockchain can prevent the next pandemic, and although it sounds like wishful thinking, the technology to do all of this is available today. In healthcare, we have been talking about preparing for disasters and how to best implement business continuity for many years. We all have the tools and the talent. Now we have COVID-19 as a potential catalyst to help prevent or lessen the impact of such a seminal event in the future and stop these insidious viruses in their tracks.


Topics: Blockchain, COVID-19

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