Blockchain’s distributed-ledger functionality lets multiple users verify information, helping to ensure the integrity of records and transactions. But just as blockchain can be used to verify Bitcoin transaction records, it can also ensure that medicines are delivered and responsibly administered in underprivileged communities and in remote areas.

“The healthcare industry processes a large amount of data – imaging, diagnoses, drug-use, disease tracking and tracing, and other information that needs to be stored and managed,” says Jon Tullett, Senior Research Manager, IT Services, sub-Saharan Africa for IDC Research. “This info needs to be accessed by many parties, from hospitals and clinics to insurance organisations.”

“Because blockchain is decentralised, everyone in the chain owns a part of the technology responsibility,” says Tullett. “If it’s used in the healthcare system, a doctor would publish an encrypted prescription to the blockchain. The patient could then authorise the pharmacist to access it and dispense the medication. This also prevents prescription fraud, as the patient cannot receive additional medication from another pharmacy.”

According to this model, patients would also be able to authorise their medical-aid companies to read the data, to authorise payment as the prescription is processed. Doctors could also track how many times a prescription is filled and ensure patients take their medication as prescribed.

This process can be applied to the entire supply chain, from drug manufacturing to distribution. Insights gained from this technology-enabled record keeping can also be used to analyse and deliver on services and to tailor policy according to the demand for healthcare across districts.

With the faster speeds and lower latency of 5G, services usually reserved for urban hospitals can now be applied to rural clinics and clinicians – even ambulances.

Blockchain can also be used for consent management, to improve payment processes and to improve treatment by tokenising and incentivising patient outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the difficulty of getting medicines to those who need them during times when supply chains are under pressure. While COVID-19 remains a global health threat, the lockdowns imposed to fight it have meant the health regimes to treat other conditions are hard to adhere to.

A study of clinic visits in KwaZulu Natal, for instance, found a drop in child clinic visits after the imposition of the lockdown.

With South Africa’s vast distances and remote communities, the optimal healthcare benefits of blockchain will only be realised once mobile-broadband connectivity is rolled out across the country combined with the vast data storage and processing capabilities of cloud computing.

The application of the technology of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) for remote medicine has also been demonstrated in China, the first country to be hit by the pandemic, and the first to overcome it decisively. Thanks to China’s developed 5G infrastructure and cloud computing capacity, doctors were able to test, diagnose and treat patients remotely, using video-linkages and IoT technology, maintaining social-distancing while boosting treatment efficiency.

A smart field hospital in Wuhan was staffed almost entirely by robots, using 5G thermometers, smart bracelets and rings that synced to an AI platform on the cloud, constantly updating vital signs for monitoring.

“Blockchain, coupled with smart devices, 5G, the Internet of Things, Cloud Computing and AI, will be able to streamline and democratise the healthcare industry,” says Michael Langeveld, Vice President, African Cloud Business for Huawei. “This edge to the data centre strategy supports the full data value chain. To optimise spend in the public sector, customers can leverage on-demand services in a pay-per-use model from the Local Huawei Data centres based in South Africa.”

The arrival of greater cloud computing capacity in South Africa further expands the country’s potential to use technology for more effective healthcare. The Huawei Cloud offering allows organisations operating inside South Africa and neighbouring countries to access lower-latency, reliable, secure cloud services such as Elastic Cloud Server (ECS), Elastic Volume Service (EVS), and Object Storage Service (OBS).

Huawei Cloud was the first local data centre to provide cloud services in Africa, and has earned more than 21 Global certifications for data protection, residency and sovereignty.

Cloud capabilities dovetail perfectly with other 4IR tech such as 5G and blockchain, raising the prospect of streamlined, efficient, technology-enabled healthcare services for all. As with many of its applications, technology is most effective when it delivers on its essential purpose: making people’s lives better.

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