150 years ago, a hospital was not a pleasant place. Mortality rates were very high, especially for mothers giving birth. A doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis even tried to stop the numerous deaths in his maternity ward, realising it was due to the unsanitary practices of doctors transmitting diseases to the mothers and babies. Nobody believed him and he would die a broken man, locked in an asylum.
However, he was right and when common hygiene started being applied, more mothers and babies survived. The effect didn't stop there: overall levels of health for patients and healthcare started getting better. This observation underlines something we now take as fact: maternity rates reflect the overall baseline of a medical environment and if you want to improve medical services, focus on reducing birth and infant mortality rates.
One of the UN's sustainable development goals is to create good health and wellbeing. Despite a significant collapse in infant mortality rates since the early 1990s, they remain in the millions and at least half occur in sub-Saharan Africa. A lack of access to blood is often to blame, particularly in rural areas.
There are two reasons for this. Allocating the right blood to the right patient in time is tricky. Blood has to be carefully stored and coordinating supplies is a difficult task. Supply is as challenging - people are not prolific donors of blood. You could blame this on apathy, but I believe the truth is much simpler: we don't have the incentive to structure some kind of donation calendar. We donate and forget, only to remember happenstance.
Blockchain can be used to address both issues, something we have been pursuing. Most of you will know blockchain through cryptocurrency and Bitcoin. However, just as there is more than one way to use a wheel, blockchain can serve many purposes.
It is a decentralised ledger system that maintains a record distributed among many different entities. Each of these maintains the ledger independently, but collectively vet changes so that the record can't be corrupted. A single blockchain ledger can maintain records across independent sources.
We're applying blockchain to blood stocks as well as donor records. This makes it much easier to know where the right blood is and rush the supply to a mother at risk of bleeding to death during childbirth.
When the blood is used, an event can be activated to personalise the effort of the blood donor where they receive an SMS informing them that their blood has been used. The recipients remain anonymous, but at that moment the donor becomes a part of the miracle. This serves as an incentive to donate again.
More opportunities wait in the wings. Metrics are generated for planning purposes and Artificial Intelligence could be applied to channel supply and demand. Internet of Things devices can open more doors and there is even the possibility for pan-African networks where blood crosses borders to save lives.
The blood blockchain system I'm describing is being trialed in Kenya, in a proof of concept focused on making it work at scale. There is already interest in markets outside the sub-Saharan region, including developed countries. By solving an acute barrier to development in our part of the world, Africa may be providing the rest of the planet with something everyone needs: a better way to manage blood supplies and incentivise donations.
By Saurabh Kumar, CEO of In2IT Technologies South Africa.