Exclusive: How digital health passports will help Singapore reopen travel

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Zheng Wei Quah, CEO and Co-founder, Accredify.

The upcoming Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble will be the first time people can fly without quarantines, since the pandemic began. Singapore is trialing blockchain to give the assurance that passengers are indeed virus-free.

Travellers can display their Covid-19 test results on the Digital Health Passport app built by local startup Accredify. Customs and airline officials will be able to check the authenticity of these test results.

The app will first be tested on November 22 with Hong Kong-bound travellers, and launched officially a week later on November 30. GovInsider spoke with Zheng Wei Quah, CEO and co-founder of Accredify, to understand how it works and his plans for expanding its uses.

Digital Health Passport

Accredify’s Digital Health Passport allows hospitals to digitise Covid test results in a secure, tamper-proof way. Users can show this record on the mobile app via a QR code. This will be crucial for restarting travel and allowing people into mass gatherings safely, Quah says.

Before this tool, hospitals issued physical pieces of paper bearing swab test results. Travellers would have to bring this to customs.

But there’s no way that border control officers can counter check this, unless hospitals open their networks to share the results directly. “That’s obviously not very secure,” he says. Blockchain offers a way to reliably authenticate the results outside of the hospital’s networks.

Parkway Pantai, Singapore’s largest private integrated healthcare provider, announced in October that it would start issuing digital swab test results on the app. It is the first healthcare group in Singapore to do so. Accredify is working to bring more medical providers on board, Quah tells GovInsider.

More uses

Travellers could eventually be able to share other kinds of immunisation records, including malaria, tuberculosis and hepatitis, says Quah. Border control can easily verify that inbound travellers have the necessary vaccinations to enter the country.

In the long term, Quah believes the Digital Health Passport could make contactless check-ins at the airport more feasible. Once travellers scan their flight booking confirmation, the app would tell them which documents they need, and whether they have to undergo quarantine, for instance. “Before you even step into Changi Airport, the airlines would have already cleared you for travel,” he says.

More broadly, this blockchain tool would give hospitals a secure way to share patient data externally, Quah notes. It can also be extended to verifying reports for insurance claims, he adds.

Improve patient care

This tech isn’t just useful for Covid test results. “What we’re doing here is to build the first foundation and the bridge for a healthcare provider to share any kind of healthcare data,” says Quah. Accredify is currently working with a public hospital in Singapore to decentralise pre-consultation check ups and distribute patient demand, he shares.

Instead of queueing up for a check up at the hospital, patients can check which nearby clinics have available slots and head there instead. These blockchain-verified results can be shared with the doctor at the hospital. Patients can even do telehealth consultations after the check up.

This could reduce overall healthcare costs, he notes. Hospitals don’t have to keep raising their charges to cope with the high demand.

How it was built

The tech behind the Digital Health Passport was first tested out during Singapore’s Covid-19 spike amongst its foreign workers. The government needed a trusted way to allow them to reenter the workforce.

Initially, foreign workers were given physical pieces of paper to prove they were well enough to work. “It created a huge issue in terms of potential forgery because they wanted to go back to work,” Quah shares. “Employers kept calling the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Manpower to check if they were true.”

The Ministry of Health then reached out to Accredify to digitise all discharge memos with blockchain, he says. Foreign workers could use their smartphone to display the verified discharge memo. This tool is offered on the Ministry of Manpower’s app, which monitors foreign workers’ health, and completed 2 million verifications in just three months.

The startup worked closely with government agencies to ensure the tech would align with the policy. “We were solving a future problem,” Quah says.

It consulted MOH and the relevant authorities to understand what Singapore's reopening would look like. It then designed the app to be able to work with different countries’ travel frameworks, he shares. “We thought that there was just one standard compliance framework, but that’s not true.”

Accredify also worked with GovTech, the Ministry of Health and Temasek to ensure the Covid test results issued in Singapore would be recognised elsewhere. They created standards for recording data, based on an interoperability framework commonly used for e-health records.

GovTech provided tech support in other ways as well. The Digital Health Passport is built on the OpenAttestation framework, an open source blockchain tool developed by GovTech, says Quah. The tool was built in collaboration with SGInnovate, a government-owned firm that invests in tech startups, and funded by the National Research Foundation.
Countries are gradually opening up after travel lockdowns. Blockchain could offer a safe step towards normalcy.