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UT Austin Developing Blockchain ID for Homeless Health Care

Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin aim to use blockchain technology to help homeless people access health care by verifying their identity and sharing it securely throughout a health services network.

(TNS) Researchers at the University of Texas Dell Medical School have been trying to answer the question: How do you get more access to health care and social service resources for people experiencing homelessness in Austin?

One of Dell Medical School's previous studies of people experiencing homelessness found that one-third of people entering the health and human services system in Austin did not have a basic identity document.

Dr. Tim Mercer, director of the global health program in the medical school's population health department, works as an internal medicine doctor at CommUnityCare with the homeless population.

"It's a major issue. ... I wouldn't have realized it if I was not there on the front lines," he said.

Now Mercer and his colleagues are working on using blockchain technology to create a way for people experiencing homelessness to have their identity verified once by one provider and then shared throughout the health and human services network in a secure way.

Using this technology, each time people check in to a medical or service provider, their identity already would be verified. They would not have to repeatedly show a photo ID.

Each transaction between provider and person would create a new block in the chain of information about that person. Blockchain has previously been used for buying and selling cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.

Often people experiencing homelessness don't have a birth certificate, Social Security card or driver's license, Mercer said, and those documents might have been damaged, lost or stolen. Different health and social service organizations might be trying to help them regain those documents, and it becomes a huge duplication of hours and work by multiple people in different organizations.

The technology being developed at Dell Medical School would allow people experiencing homelessness to store those documents securely. Once an organization verifies them, they would not have to show documents as proof. Instead, they could prove their identity through an app or the provider could look them up using the technology.

Dr. Anjum Khurshid, director of data integration in the population health department at the school, said about 80 percent of people experiencing homelessness have access to technology through their own phones. Others often can use someone else's smartphone or computer or a computer at the public library.

Mercer and Khurshid wrote about their proposal to use blockchain technology to preserve identity for the homeless population in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

They have tested it at UT with students using fake data to see if it would work. The initial funding for it came from a block grant from the McCombs School of Business' blockchain initiative.

They are at the beginning of this work, which has multiple questions that need to be answered before the technology can be used. Health clinics and social service agencies have to buy into using the technology as a way to verify identity. They also need to ensure that they have the buy-in of the homeless population and that it suits their needs. Researchers are working through how to make it secure using biometrics or other forms of identity verification in case people lose their phone or forget their username and password.

The next phase is more research, testing and finding the money to do that.

Khurshid and Mercer see blockchain technology as one way to bring more health and social service equity to vulnerable populations.

Khurshid said his hope is that Austin's vulnerable populations will no longer have issues such as this one: A patient lost his prescription and could not get medication for weeks because of the requirement to have his identity verified to get a new prescription. "Then it's a different issue. ... Then you see that person deteriorate because of the requirement," he said.

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