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Beyond the Clinic, Technology

Blockchain Technology and the Future of Veterinary Credentials

Blockchain technology gained notoriety for its use with cryptocurrency but offers several potential applications in veterinary medicine and education.

Scott McKinney

Scott McKinney is a Knoxville-based freelance writer specializing in B2B software. Unlike other writers, he comes from a mathematics background. He has a BA in math from Cornell University and 15 years experience teaching and tutoring advanced math. Now he works with trade publications on articles about software and writes marketing materials for software companies. When he’s not working, he walks 3 to 5 miles a day and practices Qi Gong.

Blockchain Technology and the Future of Veterinary Credentials
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Many hospitals are facing a sheer volume of patients and workload but are struggling to find veterinary professionals with the necessary skills to service that demand. 

This talent shortage presents 2 opportunities for better credentialing in the veterinary industry. One is simplifying how credentials are stored and shared, especially now that eLearning and competency-based training is becoming established. Another focuses on programs themselves, which comes down to finding ways to capture competencies that are meaningful or valuable.

“The veterinarian and veterinary technician shortage is a real thing. We’re trying to solve how you find vets or veterinary technicians with appropriate skills to work. How do you ensure all the paperwork, diplomas, and credit hours are transferred in? How do you ensure they’re licensed in the state?” says Dr. Jason Johnson, global chief medical officer at IDEXX and co-founder of Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. “The whole movement now is to think about education as a movement away from credit hours to skills and competencies, to abilities and achievements. It’s what the learner of today wants and future employers are looking for—that’s how we begin solving for a more relevant and ready veterinary workforce.”

For example, the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) has been working toward a competency-based model since 2015. It has built 32 competencies, with a broader vision of creating an amalgam of in-house academic learning and private practice. An essential part of this endeavor is finding how to store these learning records in a trustworthy way that’s accessible to everyone who needs to see them.

The Holy Grail: A Single Source of Truth for Credentials

Consider what happens when a veterinarian or veterinary nurse/technician is applying for a job or going back to school for a new degree. To send their certified transcript or degree to their prospective employer or school, they have to contact their old school, ask the registrar to send the sealed documents, then forward them along. This process can take 4 to 6 weeks.

The natural question is how to digitize this process to build a single foundation for storing and sharing all official diplomas, credit hours, competencies, and licensing in a way that meets everyone’s needs.

Ideally, this digital ledger would have a few key characteristics, including:

  • Verifiable: establishing a single source of truth
  • Auditable: everyone involved is able to track changes
  • Secure: no way to create fraudulent documents without leaving a digital record
  • Decentralized: no single intermediary controls the data
  • Learner-managed: learners control what data they share, without compromising trust

It turns out these are the same traits needed for cryptocurrency, which relies on blockchain technology as its means for securing and transferring ownership of currency units. Blockchain emerged as a solution for transacting cryptocurrency in a transparent and verifiable way, but it is a generic technology that can be used for many applications.

“The value is being part of a network that gives a single source of truth, that shares credentials and gives an auditable trail of where they came from and who issued them,” says Dr. Patrick Welch, founder and CEO of VetBloom, a provider of CE courses. “The technology that allows this happens to be blockchain.”

How Blockchain Works

Blockchain is a type of database that records and tracks providence of a digital asset or credential. It functions by storing the data in blocks that share a small bit of data with previous blocks, hence the name. This design inhibits anyone from changing a link, because each link shares data with neighboring links.

“If you look at blockchain itself, not all data is stored in the chain. What’s stored on the chain are encrypted pointers to the details. There’s an off-chain repository where the data is stored,” Dr. Welch says. “As you put data into the blockchain, you’re sharing a bit of data, called a hash, to blocks on the chain to allow users to access that information.”

What this means is universities, employers, and other parties have access to a distributed database where everyone can enter data and track who entered it and when in a secure way that can’t be tampered with. It could be more practical to manage a blockchain database than a centralized database that a single entity owns.

“If you think of blockchain as a utility, you’re able to capture and build competencies that are more relevant, and a more relevant worker who could continue to upskill,” says Dr. Johnson. “What we’re suggesting is that all those competencies and skills are valuable, especially if co-developed and relevant for today’s workforce. Employers, boards, licensures, academic institutions, CE providers—they can all create relevant credentialing. The learner owns it, but this is a visible way to share all those valuable competencies and skills in an accessible, ecosystem approach.”

Cryptic Roots, Credible Future

Most of the attention on blockchain centers on cryptocurrency, but IBM is working on creating a credible blockchain foundation for business. It has built blockchains for shipping container tracking, perishable goods tracking with its IBM Food Trust network, and now for learning credentials with the Learning Credential Network (LCN), which is a global blockchain-based platform for education in all industries.

Dr. Welch saw the potential of blockchains for veterinary credentials and reached out to discuss with IBM, a leader in enterprise blockchain. “IBM happened to be working on LCN at the time, so we were able to get in with IBM early on by bringing together an alliance of veterinary industry stakeholders to build this out for veterinary credentials,” Dr. Welch says. “LCN is based on IBM’s underlying technology, but the goal is to create a new organization to manage the LCN.”

VetBloom is creating integrations with the LCN as part of the pilot, along with an ecosystem of stakeholders representing different aspects of the veterinary profession. LCN is built on an open framework, so anyone who wants to integrate with it—whether for building a learning platform to issue credentials or building a wallet for individuals to house credentials—can do so.

“If a university wants to issue degrees of transcripts, they can do so using the issuer application,” says Dr. Welch. “If you want a bundled solution, our goal is to provide all the tools you need. If you’re a bigger organization and want to create your own issuer application, we give you the APIs (application programming interfaces) to do that. We’re working on the pilot right now to move things forward, and our goal is to put this into play for limited-use cases next year.”

Where It’s Going Next

“The roadblocks to widespread blockchain usage aren’t the technology. They center on building an ecosystem of universities, employers, and licensing agencies and creating a self-sustaining economic model,” says Dr. Welch.

“This is the educational currency of the future. It’s up to groups to come together to package things that are valuable, like a mixture of 10 online hours and 150 other micro-skills or competencies, or a CE event, then wrap a credential around that,” says Dr. Johnson. “The blockchain allows conserving this digital learning record in a way that’s secure, learner-centered, and trusted. That’s where I see veterinary credentials evolving over the next few years and how blockchain could fit in.”

“As an industry, this project allows us to be a leader relative to other health professions with regard to blockchain and learning credentials,” says Dr. Welch. “This is a tremendously exciting opportunity.” 

Other Blockchain Use Cases for the Veterinary Industry

Apart from credentials, there are other cases such as:

  • Supply chain: blockchain can track drugs to provide visibility and transparency about where they come from, which could help prevent counterfeits
  • Electronic medical records: blockchain allows patients to control and share records, which is already happening in human medicine
  • Research in genomics: blockchain allows the sharing and storing of patient information

Blockchain applications are already happening on the human medical side, and there’s a huge opportunity to move in this direction for veterinary medicine.