Will Blockchain Transform Personal Health Data Management?


With news that vaccines to control the spread of COVID-19 have been developed and approved, the next step will be the enormous undertaking of administering them to the public. For the current vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech to be long-lasting and effective, individuals must take two separate doses three to four weeks apart (the length of time depends on which vaccine is used)—bringing the total to about 15 billion doses. 

“[It’s] a level of undertaking that is just beyond anything we have done as a society,” Mark Treshock, Blockchain Solutions Leader for Healthcare and Life Sciences at IBM, told mobihealthnews. “To confound that, it’s the fact that these vaccines are all different, and they are not interchangeable. So even though they treat or vaccinate against the same virus, they are different vaccines.”

Blockchain technology, a decentralized digital ledger of transactions that records data in a way that prevents hacking and data altercation, may be able to help medical professionals, manufacturers, distributors, and patients stay on top of these vaccines in a secure manner. Not only can blockchain be used to track vaccines over long distances in order to ensure they are temperature controlled and safe for use upon delivery, it can also help medical professionals and patients maintain vaccination records. This could help patients as they may need to prove to authorities that they are safe to travel or to verify that they can be in an indoor office environment. Blockchain can also be used to solidify immunization records about a patient. This process can ensure a patient is receiving the correct pair of COVID-19 vaccines, which they may also need for verification purposes.

“The two-dose challenge,” said Treshock. “Where you need two doses, they need to be within a set time window, let’s say 30 days, and they need to be from the same manufacturer. So, if your first dose is Pfizer, your second dose has to be Pfizer as well. They aren’t interchangeable. When we start administering this vaccine at scale, it is going to be very challenging coordinating that.”

How Can Blockchain Help Manage Health Data?

Blockchain has the power to transform the healthcare industry. Whereas much of our online data is currently in the hands of private companies like Facebook, blockchain can give individuals control over their personal data. Data collected on the Internet is a kind of virtual representation of every user. However, many individuals have no real ownership over their data, which can create problems when it comes to security, access, monetization, privacy, and advocacy.  

“That identity is now yours, but the data that comes from its interaction in the world is owned by someone else,” Carlos Moreira, CEO of WISeKey, told Harvard Business Review

Not only is blockchain decentralized, it’s also immutable. This means transactions cannot be changed or undone without approval. Blockchain keeps digital identity safe in a “digital wallet” that gathers and protects all the data, which can include health information. For example, this “digital wallet” could house personal health records or health information captured by a smart watch, and then give an individual control over how that data is used. 

Some organizations are already using blockchain to successfully manage health data, including:

  • Canada’s University Health Network (UHN) created a patient control-and-consent platform designed to make clinical research easier. Created in partnership with IBM, UHN uses blockchain to amass and secure patient data throughout the network. It receives and records consent from each patient in order for their data to be shared with researchers.
  • MiPasa, an initiative founded by the start-up Hacera, is a platform designed to capture pandemic data on an international scale from the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, licensed private facilities, local public health agencies, and individuals—without identifying them. The platform aggregates data through Hacera’s Unbounded Network, a decentralized blockchain supported by Hyperledger Fabric. It then uses IBM’s blockchain and cloud platforms to stream the data.
  • The blockchain startup Shivom is developing an international project that gathers and shares virus host data. The platform uses blockchain to actively maintain patient consent, and to securely and privately share genomic information and data analysis with third parties without offering access to patients’ raw genomic data.

Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize health care, but requires a transformation in the rules for defining and assigning data ownership. 

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Goodnough, Abby. Zimmer, Carl. Robbins, Rebecca. Mandavilli, Apoorva. Thomas, Denise Grady Katie. Parker-Pope, Tara. Weiland, Noah. Singer, Natasha, Leonhardt., David, Rabin. Roni Caryn. Bosman, Julie. Abelson, Reed. Pérez-Peña, Richard. (14 December 2020). Answers to Your Questions About the New Covid Vaccines in the U.S. New York Times.

Lovett, Laura. (25 November 2020). Blockchain could be the key to vaccine distribution, says IBM. mobihealthnews.

Tapscott, Don and Tapscott, Alex. (12 June 2020). What Blockchain Could Mean for Your Health Data. Harvard Business Review.

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