COVID-19: IBM using blockchain to connect pop-up medical mask and equipment makers with hospitals

IBM's new blockchain project was created in three weeks to help meet the emergency medical supply needs caused by the coronavirus crisis.

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With protective masks, ventilators and other vital health care equipment in critically short supply, a growing number of clothing and consumer goods manufacturing companies are temporarily pivoting to make and supply masks and other needed medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic. But that creates another problem – since those companies are not known as medical device suppliers, there's no easy way for hospitals, governmental agencies and health care organizations to quickly find these alternative suppliers so they can securely and efficiently buy the newly-available items.


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That's where a new blockchain project from IBM can help. The nascent blockchain, called Rapid Supplier Connect, has been launched by IBM to fill the gap between those non-traditional medical supply makers and the health care community that needs the goods. Created in the last three weeks by IBM, Rapid Supplier Connect is available for free use through Aug. 31 to qualified buyers and sellers in the US and Canada.

"If I am a hospital in New England, and I normally buy PPE (personal protective equipment) through an existing supply chain and they are tapped out, now I can connect with non-traditional suppliers to find alternatives," said Mark Treshock, the blockchain solutions leader for IBM healthcare and life sciences. "Companies that are clothing manufacturers who are making these things now can get connected with hospitals."

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Image: IBM

The blockchain can be used as a source for all kinds of needed medical equipment, including PPE such as masks, ventilators and parts, and other emergency supplies. The exception is medicines, which cannot be supplied through the system due to regulatory rules.

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Alternative suppliers and buyers for health care organizations can go to the Rapid Supplier Connect website, register in about 30 minutes, and begin searching for one another immediately, Treshock said. The project is built using existing components from other IBM products, including Trust Your Supplier, a blockchain-based platform that provides pre-verified information on suppliers, and the Sterling Supply Chain suite.

By using a blockchain to organize the efforts, buyers and sellers can have confidence in the companies that list their goods and know that their transactions are secure and protected due to the construction of the blockchain, Treshock said.
"It's the immutability component. If I am a supplier and I create a profile and include my information for onboarding as a new supplier, there's a qualification process I have to go through," he said. "It is done to determine if they are legitimate, ethical, that they comply with required laws and, in this case, with needed FDA certifications."

blockchain is essentially a database of details. Often called a public ledger, a blockchain is a secure and unchangeable log made up of metadata about when and how each transaction occurred. Blockchains are cryptographically secured, which provides security and trust for users.

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Since health care organizations that are seeking needed supplies don't have time today for the lengthy normal supplier onboarding processes, the blockchain project provides a trustworthy means to get masks and other equipment quickly, without months of lead time, Treshock said.

"Companies can know it is accurate and secure because it is on this blockchain," he said.

Partnering with IBM on the blockchain project is the Worldwide Supply Chain Federation and Project N95, a non-profit clearinghouse designed to vet suppliers and help procure needed critical PPE devices for health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation is onboarding more than 200 American suppliers from its 3,000 global community members to participate in the efforts.


Several added security tools are being used to protect the participants in Rapid Supplier Connect, including identity resolution, firmographic data, and supplier risk and viability scores from Dun & Bradstreet and "Know Your Business" due diligence report access from KYC's SiteScan.

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Access to the blockchain project is designed to help today while health care organizations continue to scramble to find needed PPE and other equipment, but the idea is that hospitals and other medical facilities will be able to return to their normal suppliers in the future, Treshock said.

One healthcare organization that is participating in the blockchain is Northwell Health, the largest healthcare provider in New York state. Other health system providers have also joined, but their identities are not being disclosed at this time.

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Image: OlgaDan, Getty Images/iStockPhoto