“Planetary health” is an emerging concept that goes beyond global human health — it reflects a growing understanding of the interaction between human health, sociopolitical systems, and the environment.
As concerns around the climate increase, the environmental limits within which humanity can inhabit Earth safely are directly affected by political, economic, and social factors that span policy, advocacy, and community building.
Our understanding of human health and well-being is constantly evolving. It has progressed from an individualistic approach centered on genetics and biochemistry to incorporate how people act and interact (public health), wider interconnected communities (global health), human-animal interaction, and a broader understanding that human health is interdependent with the well-being of the planet and its ecosystems (planetary health), according to research in the Challenges scientific journal.
The report states:
“COVID-19 revealed how humans and the environment are increasingly connected in a fragile ‘supersystem’ that undermines rather than supports planetary health, and characterised planetary health challenges in terms of their complexity, interconnectivity, and chronicity.
“Such challenges require systems-wide strategies above and beyond current responses.”
There are technology-enabled approaches to advancing healthcare and tackling climate change separately.
But there is potential for blockchain technology to bridge the gap and apply Web3 to support planetary health, bringing together data analytics, finance, digital identity, medicine, research, and Internet-connected devices.
What Makes Blockchain Suitable for Planetary Health?
The distributed ledger technology (DLT) at the heart of blockchain networks allows data to be recorded and disseminated securely across a peer-to-peer network. Adding data to a blockchain requires consensus, which is decentralized and immutable.
Planetary health is a complex system that requires coordination between centralized elements— such as environmental mitigation responses and early warning systems—and localized, community-level responses. Blockchain can help manage that complexity by coordinating decentralized entities and centralizing interventions.
Distributed ledgers can provide better modeling and predictions, faster or even automated decision making and pool resources for multi-stakeholder-funded projects, individuals on the move, and across various agencies to increase their efficiency.
Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) can develop and operate blockchains with predetermined rules and structures that facilitate non-hierarchical organization and collective decision-making.
And Web3 technologies can enable processes that support the values integral to achieving planetary health.
Decentralization itself provides a way to avoid replicating the unequal structures that have caused both global health and ecological crises, moving power away from centralized institutions to the people and communities affected the most, the report by Challenges argues.
Let’s look at some of the applications of blockchain technology in the future of human and environmental health management.
Blockchain technology enables new forms of financing, which can include cryptocurrencies that can be used for specific purposes to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that can be sold by charities to raise funds or represent ownership of an asset, such as trees and forests or wildlife adoption.
Blockchain-based carbon credit systems that allow users to buy or earn carbon offsets with cryptocurrencies are emerging. In this way, individuals can manage their carbon footprints, while organizations of various sizes can manage their supply chains, and investors can track where and how their money is used.
Taking this a step further, blockchains can support population healthcare financing at multiple levels, from individual health insurance to various healthcare providers to traditional grants and donor agencies.
They can improve cash flow, reduce transaction costs, limit settlement times, and increase efficiency. This can bring individuals into the system who might be typically excluded from traditional financing models, such as homeless youth or other marginalized communities, the study notes.
Cryptocurrencies can also help to decentralize decision-making to give local policymakers within grant-making and donor agencies more control, and smart contracts can trigger funding when predefined goals are achieved, removing the need for intermediaries while increasing transparency.
This type of automation would bring new accountability to development financing, including microfinance and microinsurance. It can support the diversification of funding, such as through impact bonds while reducing bureaucracy.
Individuals who do not have proof of identity — such as homeless people, the elderly, migrants, and refugees — can struggle to gain access to health and other social services. Blockchains can support secure digital identity applications that provide immutable digital proof and attach health data, allowing service providers to direct treatments and funding while preventing fraud.
Medicines and Devices
Smart contracts can reduce inefficiencies, theft, and the proliferation of counterfeits in distributing medicines. Immutable blockchain records can record drug and service flows, including during transportation and IoT applications, to ensure that data is input correctly. The ability to monitor goods and services is key to improving supply chain transparency across a number of sectors, including food, raw materials, medicines, and devices—including for COVID-19 vaccines and tackling antimicrobial resistance.
Blockchain’s trustless systems can manage variables that might otherwise reduce trust in healthcare services, reducing falsified and substandard drugs, validating health records and vaccine cards, and monitoring health system funding.
There are several ways that blockchain can help advance health-related research, including collection, storage, and sharing of data, patient onboarding, and scientific publishing. Decentralization and interoperability could allow researchers to use health records that would otherwise be centralized, inaccessible, and disconnected. Patients can benefit, too, by easily providing consent for health studies, pooling data for medical trials, and connecting with other patients with similar conditions.
The transparency and traceability of blockchain records reduce inefficiencies and can prevent the spread of false information by making it easier to identify falsified infographics or manipulated images.
Blockchain networks can play an important role in storing and managing electronic health records, protecting patient information while reducing the siloing of health services and interoperability issues to enable a holistic approach.
Data can be shared between telehealth service providers and national, state, and local health agencies, reducing the costs associated with duplication and inefficiency.
Blockchains can also support innovations in data submission, such as integration with IoT devices for remote patient monitoring, environment monitoring for extreme weather events, and applications during pandemics.
Smart contracts can be programmed to trigger a code or response based on data collected by IoT devices to deploy financing, inform early warning systems, provide evacuation warnings, or send public health messaging when certain conditions occur, such as dangerously high or low temperatures or pollution levels.
Open data and the pooling of resources could allow for the development of pharmaceuticals and other treatments outside of the for-profit health system. Individuals in low- and middle-income countries can take control of their health data for research and innovation, contributing to global advancements while reducing bias.
Limitations of Blockchain in Human and Environmental Health Management
While there is potential to apply blockchain and Web3 technologies to building new systems and infrastructure that can manage the complexity of planetary health, it is important to be aware of their shortcomings:
- There is a risk of “crypto-colonial practices” that replicate colonial-driven approaches to global health and monetary systems.
- The energy consumption of blockchain mining and its impact on the environment remains of concern, although newer blockchains are attempting to cut their energy use.
- Technological and regulatory limitations across health, environment, and blockchain persist, including issues of legal compliance, clinical standards, and data interoperability.
- The application of blockchain technology in healthcare remains focused on individuals with limited development in public or global systems.
- There are barriers to entry, requiring technical infrastructure and literacy, as Web3 technologies are not yet at the stage where they are user-friendly for most of the population. This limits the benefits to already wealthy and privileged health systems and settings.
There are shared values between the planetary health concept encompassing human healthcare and Earth’s ecosystems’ health and Web3 technologies based on blockchains.
Applying these technologies to the complexities of managing the planet’s future can bring equity, decentralization, transparency, and trust to data use, financing, identity verification, medicines, and research.
As blockchain technology expands beyond financial markets, there is an opportunity to re-imagine how to coordinate these disparate elements into a globally coordinated approach to human healthcare and climate change.