Blockchain technology is relentlessly hawked as the cure-all for everything that ails business and society. Pushing the hype aside for just one moment, the super-secure, distributed ledger could well deliver the global supply chain transparency that will help this country address the opioid crisis.
Every day, more than 90 Americans die after overdosing on opioids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention country puts a price tag of $78 billion on the opioid crisis, spanning healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice. To be clear, it’s a difficult, multi-faceted problem. Yet some experts argue Blockchain’s promise lies in its ability to take on precisely this kind of complex challenge.
Opening the black box
Of all the industry supply chains, pharmaceuticals is one of the most strategic, and there’s no further proof of that than the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA). Under this mandate, all drugs delivered to patients must have a traceable technology element – it could be a two-dimensional barcode or something electronic. Regulators would then be able to trace the drugs back to the manufacturer.
It’s easy to see blockchain’s potential fit. It’s ideally suited to open industrial-size black boxes like global supply chains. Pharmaceutical production starts with the raw materials and manufacturers, and extends through suppliers, brand manufacturers and contract manufacturers to distributors, wholesalers, physicians, hospitals and pharmacies, all the way to patients.
When it comes to tackling overprescribing, blockchain could leave today’s databases in the dust. Right now, companies and regulators can manage pieces of the opioid crisis puzzle. But the truth is, if a physician is overprescribing, others are likely aiding and abetting.
“Once you start tagging drugs with an immutable audit trail, you can do what was impossible before,” said Josh Greenbaum, Principal of Enterprise Applications Consulting (EAC). “It’s fairly easy to game a national database of prescriptions, providers and patients. But making the drugs traceable provides a much more comprehensive view of what each party is doing with the opioids. Blockchain adds the full distribution picture, and could be tremendously valuable in exposing leaks.”
Note to pharma: get a DNA transplant
Of course, there are numerous challenges, notably the dearth of experts who understand the technology, not to mention security.
“Blockchain is very nascent, and pharma distribution is old school,” said Greenbaum. “There has to be almost a DNA transplant to make it work well. And, even though blockchain is meant to be secure, it doesn’t mean it’s infallible. You need to make sure it’s truly secure, including at the points of integration between systems. Openness is meant to be the gold standard for commerce in the global economy, but pharma has a tremendous amount of personal identifiable information.”
Blockchain’s immaturity ─ glaringly obvious in the profusion of disparate, disconnected, non-standardized fabrics and consortia ─ is another major hurdle. Green sees blockchain in pharma functioning in a more private network. “There won’t be a single blockchain across the industry. You’ll have to reconcile multiple chains so suppliers or contract manufacturers aren’t buried under the technical complexity of monitoring and participating in multiple blockchains.”
Blockchain by itself won’t deter people from misusing drugs. As an auditable, traceable service underlying the pharmaceutical supply chain, blockchain might just provide a trail for investigators to thwart more counterfeiters, and help manufacturers make sure what’s coming out of the factory ends up at the right point of sale to the right patients. There is no single solution to the opioid crisis, but we do have to find some answers. People’s lives depend on it.