This is one of those rare turning points in history. The COVID-19 pandemic will profoundly change our behavior and society. Many institutions will come under scrutiny and, we hope, change for the better.
At the Blockchain Research Institute, we’re doing our part to facilitate positive change. Technologies like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, augmented/virtual reality, and above all, blockchain are more relevant than ever – not just to business and the economy but to the future of public health and the safety of global populations.
Traditional systems have failed us and it’s time for a new paradigm. To build on Victor Hugo, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea that has become a necessity.”
Health care crises and blockchain: A framework
Given the urgent need for global solutions, the Blockchain Research Institute convened a virtual roundtable of 30 experts from five continents. We discussed the challenges of COVID-19 and the possibilities of using blockchain in areas of need. In our special report, “Blockchain Solutions in Pandemics,” we developed a framework for facing pandemics together in these five areas.
1. Self-sovereign identity, health records and shared data
Data is the most important asset in fighting pandemics. If any useful data exists now, it sits in institutional silos. We need better access to the data of entire populations and a speedy consent-based data sharing system. To accelerate discovery, the blockchain startup Shivom is working on a global project to collect and share virus host data in response to a call for action from the European Union’s Innovative Medicines Initiative. In Honduras, Civitas – an app developed by the start-up Emerge – is linking Hondurans’ government-issued ID numbers with blockchain records used to track medical appointments. Doctors simply scan the app to review a patient’s symptoms verified and recorded by telemedicine services.
Dr. Raphael Yahalom of MIT and the Oxford-Hainan Research Institute is working on Trustup, a trust-reasoning framework that can systematically highlight the ways in which health data recorded on a blockchain ledger is more trustworthy than data stored in conventional databases. The trade-off between privacy and public safety need not be so stark. Through self-sovereign identities, where individuals own their health records and can freely volunteer it to researchers, we can achieve both.
2. Just-in-time supply chain solutions
Supply chains are critical infrastructure for our globally connected economy, and COVID-19 has put them under tremendous strain, exposing potential weaknesses in their design. We must rebuild supply chains to be transparent, where users can access information quickly and trust that it’s accurate. The start-up RemediChain is doing just that for the pharmaceutical supply. One of its co-founders, Dr. Philip Baker, was interested in tracking down and recycling unused but still efficacious medications such as those used for cancer. He saw blockchain as means of recovering their chain of custody:
By posting the medication and its expiration date, people all over the country can create a decentralized national inventory of surplus medication. When there is [a] sudden run on a previously ubiquitous medication like hydroxychloroquine, healthcare professionals can call on this surplus as a life-saving resource. The same principle applies for ventilators and PPE.
Blockchain serves as a “state machine” that gives us visibility into the state of our suppliers as well as the assets themselves. When COVID-19 hit, the start-up VeriTX – a virtual marketplace for digital assets like patented design files – pivoted to medical supplies, so that medical facilities could print the parts needed at one of the 180 3D printing facilities in VeriTX’s network. VeriTX can reverse-engineer a part and then build it much faster and at a lower cost than getting it from the original manufacturer or replacing the equipment.
3. Sustaining the economy: How blockchain can help
If supply chains are the machinery of global commerce, then money is its lubricant. Yet, money as a carrier of the disease has been a stressor during this pandemic. We highlight the what, why and how of digital cash as an alternative. Costs are also an issue. The Ethereum-based Solve.Care platform is dramatically lowering health-care administrative costs so that more of a patient’s medical budget goes directly to care. The health crisis has also become a financial crisis, closing off access to supply chain credit. We look at blockchain-based financing solutions such as Chained Finance and fundraising efforts like that of the Binance Charity Foundation. Finally, decentralized models of governance such as those created by blockchain startups Abridged and Aragon can transform how NGOs, governments, and communities respond to the crisis.
4. A rapid response registry for medical professionals
Front-line medical professionals are the heroes and our last line of defense. Yet, hospitals can’t onboard people fast enough. This is not for lack of talent; it’s the inability to find those with proper credentials. Blockchain platforms such as Dock.io, ProCredEx and Zinc.work help to streamline coordination among different geographies, departments, and certification bodies so that supply and demand for healthcare workers – as well as the process for verifying their skills – becomes more efficient and transparent.
5. Incentive models to reward responsible behavior
People respond to incentives. Blockchain serves as a mechanism to synch up the incentives of stakeholder groups around issues and activities, changing patterns of behavior in the process. For example, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada collaborated with Interac to micro-motivate healthy lifestyles, and Toronto’s University Health Network teamed up with IBM to put control over health records into patients’ hands.
An action plan for the new paradigm
Many of these changes are beyond the timeframe of this round of COVID-19. But many can be implemented quickly.
Governments must wake up to the blockchain opportunity. Every national government should create an emergency task force on medical data to start planning and implementing blockchain initiatives. They can stimulate the development of technology firms working on the solutions described here. They should partner with medical professional associations and other players to implement blockchain credential systems.
We anticipate a real crisis of leadership as the new digital-first and digital-only models conflict with the old industrial tried-and-true.
The private sector affected by COVID-19 must still lead the way. They must start today by incorporating blockchain into their infrastructures. Companies need to continue their work on pilots framed around medical records, credentialing systems, incentive structures and other sovereign identity solutions. When designing these pilots, companies could consider embedding incentive systems for socially responsible behavior.
Emergencies turbocharge the pace of historical progress. Businesses like Zoom, once used mostly by technology companies, have become ubiquitous tools of daily life. Meanwhile, 20th century titans are asking for bailouts. By necessity, human behavior – from where we work and when to how we socialize – changes overnight. Add to this mix the exponential properties of blockchain, and we’re setting ourselves up for a cataclysm of some kind.
We anticipate a real crisis of leadership as the new digital-first and digital-only models conflict with the old industrial tried-and-true. Maybe this awful crisis will call forth a new generation of leaders who can help us finally get the digital age on track? Who among us will step up?