In brief

  • The coronavirus pandemic is driving the uptake of remote medicine services.
  • Healthcare experts see a convergence between telemedicine and blockchain technology.
  • Blockchain is set to be a building block in a new tokenized, remote healthcare ecosystem.

It’s an extraordinary moment in the modern world as the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has rapidly become a global phenomenon. Amid the frantic response to the deadly pandemic, entire countries are ordering shelter-in-place measures to keep people at home while restaurants and businesses close their doors.

Essential services remain open in those areas, including doctors’ offices and hospitals, but social distancing is leaving many reluctant to leave their homes—while health services in some countries are already feeling the strain under the influx of coronavirus patients. Given the increasing isolation of the world’s population, it’s no surprise that telemedicine is getting a lot more attention of late.

Telemedicine (or telehealth) is the remote use of telecommunications to deliver care—for example, trading the typical doctor’s appointment for a private, secure video call with a medical processional. The practice has gradually been on the rise in recent years; a J.D. Power study issued in 2019 showed that nearly 10% of Americans had used a telemedicine service in place of a physical visit over the previous year.

Whether they knew it or not, many of those patients likely utilized telemedicine services that rely on blockchain technology to secure interactions—and in some cases, to allow patients to control their own data. With its immutable ledger and cryptographic design, blockchain is uniquely positioned to power such critical and sensitive services. And with the global COVID-19 pandemic potentially stretching out for months to come, this could be the tipping point that helps normalize telemedicine in the mainstream.

Coronavirus drives telemedicine boom

Telemedicine services have reported unprecedented demand in recent weeks, while state and federal governments are clearing some of the previous roadblocks to its expansion. President Trump’s administration expanded Medicare benefits for US telemedicine services in the wake of COVID-19, for example, following other telemedicine-friendly moves in the past, while China has opened up the floodgates for Internet-based services. It’s a whole new world for telemedicine.

“Telemedicine will grow exponentially amid COVID-19 as people are very skeptical about going to a hospital or crowded testing areas to get tested,” Blaise Wabo, Associate Director and HITRUST Practice Lead at cybersecurity and compliance firm A-LIGN, tells Decrypt. “A lot of states didn’t accept telemedicine, [but] the federal government has waived telemedicine restrictions for preliminary tests to be done virtually with a doctor or medical practitioner prior to going for further testing in person.”

Wabo has written extensively about the convergence of telemedicine and blockchain in the past, and suggests that blockchain can be a key part of the technological leap needed to deal with a pandemic like this.

“We can see that the world is not getting better prepared for medical pandemics, and one would think as technology advances, we definitely should do better,” he says. “More organized tracking systems are needed to collect and track data during a medical pandemic, and also predict patterns in order to be better prepared to contain wide outspreads and ultimately help with finding treatment quicker. Blockchain technology could be the solution to handling private medical information and interactions.”

"Blockchain could be the solution to handling private medical information."

Blaise Wabo

Technologies such as zero-knowledge proofs and multiparty computation can add an element of privacy to blockchain's immutable ledger. Eventually, the goal is to enable computations on private data without exposing that data, which has obvious applications in the field of healthcare.

Cutting costs through remote medicine

Part of the appeal of telemedicine—especially at this particular time—is the ability to seek professional medical help without leaving the home or meeting face-to-face. Brennan Bennett, founder of Blockchain Healthcare Review and Senior Business Analyst for Intermountain Healthcare, also points to the potential for lower-cost medical assistance via telemedicine.

“This crisis will actually put telehealth into perspective in terms of an affordable countermeasure to the rising costs of healthcare delivery,” Bennett tells Decrypt. “It's not hard to do the math both for the patient and the provider in terms of the value of remote access to diagnostic assessments for basic, and even moderately complex symptoms.”

“The real question is, how will telehealth advance in such ways that mobile and/or web applications have access to more advanced clinical decision support features powered by technology, such as AI-trained computer vision?” he continues. “Once this threshold is crossed in a meaningful way on a global level, the intake relief provided to our healthcare system from telehealth can truly experience exponential growth. Most blockchain-based healthcare apps have this benchmark built into their MVPs [minimum viable products].”

Building telemedicine on blockchain

There are some ambitious blockchain-driven telemedicine efforts out there—such as startup BitMED, which Decrypt profiled in 2018. The company aims to provide totally free telemedicine to anyone in the world through a platform built around its BXM token. The trade-off, however, is that you’ll need to share your anonymized medical records, which the company can then lease out for big bucks. However, there are less audacious-sounding blockchain telemedicine startups out there, too.

“Several tech companies and startups in the industry have recognized [the benefits of blockchain] and have started building a number of blockchain solutions aiming at tracking drug supply chains, medical supplies, insurance claims, medical diagnosis and symptoms, and managing medical data,” adds Wabo. These services could, he explains, provide valuable insight and statistics to help contain disease outbreaks and advise citizens on safety actions and measures.

Wabo points to Medicalchain as an example. The service allows users to access a comprehensive health record and share it as desired with doctors, with a system built on MedTokens. Those tokens can be used on the company’s MyClinic.com website, which allows for remote video consultations with doctors.

He also mentioned Docademic’s Doc.com, which uses the Doc Token for its own blockchain telemedicine service, along with Gainfy, which gamifies healthy living habits and provides rewards to users. Meanwhile, Bennett noted some compelling blockchain telemedicine services that have caught his attention, including tokenized DNA marketplace Encrypgen, AI-driven consultation service Medvice, and “virtual visit” app PointNurse.

Blockchain won’t be a selling point for the average consumer at this point, but with the telemedicine industry set to boom in the wake of the coronavirus, the technology may prove a vital building block for companies enabling and empowering the future of remote healthcare.