Fighting COVID-19: Does blockchain have a role to play?

By René Seifert, co-founder of

When it comes to innovation in the fight against COVID-19, much of the emphasis and investment has been channelled into securing a vaccine (and rightly so), with this seemingly now being the ‘exit strategy’ for most governments.

However, as the pandemic continues to stress-test some of the very best healthcare systems across the globe, including our own NHS, a question remains as to whether there are any pioneering technologies available to support the UK’s health and social care sectors, right now.

This is where we at believe that blockchain has the capacity to make an immediate difference in the fight against COVID-19, principally when it comes to ensuring the healthcare sector can efficiently and securely obtain the staff and skills it needs.

Blockchain isn’t just for Bitcoin 

Early reports about blockchain were dominated by references to Bitcoin, which made it seem like the only application for the technology would be across the financial services market. However, a range of sectors have begun to utilise the technology for a variety of use-cases, including health and social care.

Put simply, a blockchain is a shared, distributed database which records transactions. Each transaction is added as a block and is stored decentralised in the chain. Crucially, this means that no central party has control over its content, and nobody can tamper with the records because every member has to agree to its validity and can check the history of record changes.

In the healthcare sector, this technology has usually been mentioned in the context of patients’ medical records, as it can provide absolute proof and confidence that they cannot be altered. However, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that other use-cases for blockchain are considered across the sector, as the scope for innovation with this technology is limited only by our imagination.

The staffing crisis 

Even before the pandemic started, the NHS was already under enormous pressure to fill much needed roles across the country and was suffering from growing staff shortages. In fact, recent reports suggest that staff shortages in the NHS are expected to grow to almost 250,000 by 2030 from 100,000 in 2018.

However, now more than ever, healthcare professionals are needed around the world to support and bolster the worldwide efforts to combat and curtail the impact of COVID-19. This will be particularly important as the pandemic continues to get more severe, as workforce shortages are likely to become more acute, meaning that the NHS and many other formerly-functioning healthcare systems will very quickly become overwhelmed and understaffed.

Why am I saying this? Well, a question that should be asked is whether technologies such as blockchain, which have largely gone under the radar, can be easily deployed to provide the NHS with some immediate and long-term relief by ensuring it has the staff required to tackle the COVID-19 crisis head-on?

Applying blockchain to close the skills gap 

Fortunately for the NHS, the answer is yes – utilising blockchain has the capacity to help the NHS streamline its recruitment process and connect with healthcare professionals from across the world faster and more securely.

For context, the current NHS recruitment process can take anywhere up to six months, particularly when it comes to hiring medical professionals from abroad and verifying their credentials. However, this is a timeframe that hospitals just simply don’t have right now.

This is where blockchain can make an enormous difference. For example, using a blockchain-enabled professional document verification platform will enable candidates to securely upload and verify private documents, such as passport or university certificates, providing them with a form of portable credentials. NHS recruiters and healthcare regulators will then be able to view and verify candidates’ credentials against the blockchain.

As a result, where it might have taken the NHS anything up to six months to verify an overseas candidate’s credentials, the latest blockchain-enabled online platforms remove these obstacles in one fell swoop. This offers the NHS a way to significantly reduce the time-to-hire of medical professionals by up to 20-30 days through giving NHS recruiters access to a bank of prescreened and authenticated medical professionals who are ready to move where they are needed most. In the ongoing fight against COVID-19, this increased efficiency, without compromise on security, could prove to be the difference.

Using blockchain after COVID-19 

While it is unclear whether we will return to ‘normal’ at this stage, a number of more long-term challenges are facing the UK’s healthcare sector and blockchain also has the capacity to relinquish the burden here too.

Firstly, let’s talk Brexit. As Brexit is now fully underway, the NHS is expected to close the growing skills gap across the health and social care sector by opening the door to an influx of healthcare professionals from across the globe. By using blockchain technology, such as a blockchain-enabled professional document verification platform, the NHS will be able to eliminate the continual churn of verification requests every time a healthcare professional applies for a new role. This ensures that the NHS will be able to swiftly take advantage of the expected inflow of healthcare professionals post-Brexit and avoid staffing bottlenecks.

Secondly, the government’s flagship digital transformation programme – NHSX – is yet to position itself on the use of blockchain. However, if two key pillars of the programme are to be achieved – ‘radical innovation’ and ‘reducing the burden on the NHS workforce’ – it is imperative that transformative technologies such as blockchain are considered. Whether it is in the recruitment of staff or securing patient records, it is clear that blockchain can help make the sector more secure and efficient.

Blockchain isn’t an exit strategy, but it will give the NHS more ammo

Bringing the focus back on the immediate issue of COVID-19, it is important to emphasise that adopting blockchain-enabled online platforms is not an exit strategy; it is merely a way for healthcare sectors to ensure they have the resources they need to immediately tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

As such, it will be essential for the NHS and healthcare recruiters in the coming weeks and months to broaden their tech playbook and seek out the latest cost-effective solutions. In turn, they will have the much needed and absolutely necessary capability to act quickly when it comes to securing the best medical talent to meet their immediate needs, from anywhere in the world.


Join our audience of healthcare industry professionals