Could a blockchain health record help HR handle the pandemic?

Airlines could request proof of a negative test or vaccination>br >Shutterstock

While discussions around ‘no jab, no job’ grab the headlines, there could be a real need for employees to share health credentials once business travel takes off again or as offices open up. Technology company IBM is one of the companies developing secure ‘health passports’. 

As the vaccine roll-out continues and lockdown restrictions begin to ease, a growing number of employers are looking for ways to validate employees’ health credentials.

There have been multiple headlines about employers insisting that new staff must be vaccinated against Covid-19 before starting work, but even if an organisation chooses not to adopt a no jab, no job policy, there are benefits to knowing the health status of staff.

Technology company IBM believes that handing over control of these credentials to the employee, rather than the employer, could help organisations with workforce planning and employee mobility.

“We’ve seen a number of healthcare trends accelerate on the back of the pandemic,” explains Mark Davies, the company’s chief medical officer.

“We’re all taking part more in looking after the safety of ourselves and others through social distancing and the like, and there’s been a reframing of the social contract between citizens and healthcare. Part of that is taking more control of our data.”

Trustworthy record

IBM has been working with test providers, governments and some private employers on the development of its Digital Health Pass. Using blockchain, the pass becomes an “immutable and trustworthy” record of someone’s health status, which could be a negative Covid test or a record of their vaccination. The credentials could be used for anything from gaining access to an office building, being able to fly, or getting into a live sporting event.

“The authority licensed to give you those credentials could be a government, a private healthcare provider – something that is trusted and regulated,” adds Anthony Day, a partner at IBM and the lead on Digital Health Pass.

Because the individual has already given consent to the test or vaccine, this becomes part of that record. They personally hold the credentials so there are no risks of breaching data protection rules such as GDPR – any organisation that needs to verify them would only ‘touch’ the data in an anonymous way.

“This could be an employer, an airline, any organisation that wants to see proof that you have been vaccinated,” says Day. “We believe digital proof carries the least risk of fraud. The verifier looks up that this is all valid, and this is all orchestrated by the blockchain technology, rather than revealing the personal information itself.” The company has built up a network of testing providers that can share results with the Health Pass “wallet”, which individuals can store on their phone.

Accessibility

The credential itself could come in many forms, depending on what the verifying organisation wants and what it needs to interoperate with: as with an airline boarding card or similar, this could be an app, a QR code or even a print-out of a PDF to be scanned, depending on existing entry management systems. “Not everyone has a smart device so it’s important to think about accessibility. We don’t want to create something that doesn’t fit in with existing ways of working,” he adds.

Ultimately, the aim is to create something akin to PayPal for these credentials as adoption of digital health passes increases, and more organisations require verification of health status.

“Not one health pass will rule, as it’s likely different governments will choose different systems,” adds Day. This becomes important when employees begin business travel as pandemic restrictions ease: someone could be on a trip that requires them to go to multiple venues, using different transport modes or even travelling through different countries.

Davies adds: “It could become complicated if someone has to keep multiple health passes on their phone. But it’s also about the physical experience. If someone had a swab test for the virus before they left Germany, do they want another three or four when they arrive somewhere else?”

Living with Covid

New York State began a pilot programme with Digital Health Pass earlier this month, where a group of participants used its app to gain entry to a Brooklyn Nets basketball game. Another trial was held with a hockey game at Madison Square Garden. IBM is also talking to pharmaceutical company Moderna about how it can issue vaccine credentials.

Davies believes encouraging employees to carry their own health credentials plays an important role in building trust around health and safety at work. “To show employees that you’re trying to keep transmission of Covid to a minimum is such an important contributor to this conversation,” he says.

This is not just a short-term solution to deal with the challenges of the current pandemic; tools such as this can help organisations to be prepared for future health ‘events’ or simply the reality of living with Covid.

He concludes: “We’re all coming to the point where we accept that this is here to stay, that there may be an annual vaccination programme, or test and trace becomes part of our ongoing control mechanisms.

“The economic and personal impact of this pandemic means we will not be taken by surprise by another. And the trend around health participation and taking control of your own data is one we welcome.”

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