To preface, I am not a physician or epidemiologist. I am a recent summa cum laude graduate from the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. I was inspired to major in public health with a minor in health education and biomedical sciences because of my passion to improve our current healthcare system through patient education and advocacy. Unfortunately, I had an all too personal look at that system recently as I navigated my way through it while a family member was on life support with no health insurance. That brutal experience began a quest to understand even more deeply the cracks under the surface of the system, and it gave me visibility to how many people fall through those cracks everyday. Concurrently, I have always felt that technology held the keys to some of these issues, but it never seemed existing solutions were adequate to address the range of problems I know exist today.
When I learned about the coronavirus family (MERS and SARS) some years ago, it intrigued me how quickly these viruses can spread and what a potential global outbreak would look like. Because of my understanding of viruses and their levels of severity, I have had a close eye on COVID-19 since news broke in December about an outbreak in Wuhan, China. I understand how important food safety/food handling is to our health and controlling disease, so when reports came out that the COVID-19 outbreak had originated from a wet market in Wuhan, I knew something big was on the horizon.
Fast forward to today, March 20, 2020, and we are now in the midst of a full-blown global pandemic with COVID-19 affecting people in over 100 countires. As I write this, the United States has over 10,000 reported cases and 150 deaths, but those numbers will continue to rise as hospitals and labs are overwhelmed and successful testing kits remain scarce. The media coverage has been confusing; some sources report a dire threat, while others report that this will pass quickly and will only affect people ages 60 and up. Federal and local governments have been slow moving until our reported cases started to climb and now it seems panic has ensued throughout the country. This confusion and lack of transparency has resulted in greater distrust of the system, and there are already countless questions from everyday people and medical professionals alike with one question in particular standing out amongst the rest- “What could we have done better?”
After much research into how technology can improve public health/healthcare as a whole , I have concluded that one of the answers to this question lies in blockchain.
Blockchain technology has been gaining traction and for good reason- it is a decentralized system that records data as transactions on a ledger, preventing any tampering or falsifying of information. Blockchain systems are designed to be very secure and resilient to attackers or natural disasters. Blockchain would be specifically useful in our current state of emergency because it would be able to strengthen disease surveillance systems and could be used to look for health security concerns, preventative measures, and allow us to respond both rapidly and effectively. With this kind of rapid response, we would be able to reduce morbidity and mortality and many economic costs which we are seeing in real time with COVID-19.
Blockchain would also be able to help with disease surveillance. Our current method of disease surveillance, which is done for communicable and non-communicable diseases, is an extremely complex and, at many times, inefficient process due to organizations reporting to a centralized information system. This can be extremely challenging when viruses such as COVID-19 are spreading across the globe at an alarming rate. Blockchain would be able to step in and manage data effectively during epidemics and pandemics by giving us real time data by sensing these potential outbreaks and allowing us to respond as quickly as possible.
Not only do I now see blockchain as a possible solution for global health threats, I also understand how the implementation of blockchain based systems can improve healthcare as a whole. At the hospital level, blockchain has the potential to improve processes such as EMRs, billing, and insurance claims, as well as manage logistics and resources which would improve quality standards in supply chain management.
As someone who, within the last year, has been a caregiver to a loved one, I truly see how blockchain would also have benefits at the patient level. Since blockchain based systems have distributed features, it could be used as a way to share health data and records with patients and their chosen caregivers. This kind of system would give patients a sense of empowerment over their health information and would allow them to designate access to caregivers who have the responsibility to provide their care each and every day. Blockchain could also pave the way for remote monitoring, which would quickly start to bridge the massive gap that exists between the coordination of physicians, patients, and patient health services.
I am just beginning my journey into understanding this emerging technology, but as someone who has spent years researching public health and will soon pursue my MPH (Masters Public Health), I am now passionate about blockchain. I believe in the unparalleled advances it could provide healthcare, including global pandemics. I know that we, as a country, will get through this outbreak, and I hope this experience sheds light on how we can grow and “do better” together. I invite you to join me on this journey of discovery and follow my progress as I write about how blockchain is transforming healthcare through the eyes of someone who is just starting down the path of understanding.
Stay safe and healthy!
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