Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Learning from the US’s opioid crisis: the blockchain solution to over-prescription



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Overuse of prescription medicines can cause serious health problems. Dexter Blackstock, CEO of MediConnect (the only blockchain solution intended to revolutionise the use of medication in the UK) explains how blockchain technology can prevent multiple prescriptions, improve traceability and combat drugs counterfeiting

A move to online prescriptions can bring big benefits for medicine and healthcare, but if not properly controlled it can contribute to problems such as prescription drug addiction and counterfeit medicines. Just as in other areas of life, the shift to online pharmacies improves choice, speed and efficiency, but without effective technology to support regulation there is a danger of it becoming vulnerable to misuse.

The crisis of opioid addiction in the USA has shown how prescription medicines can be highly dangerous if not supplied and used properly. Yet, it is possible – and completely legal – in the UK to order a medicine from one pharmacy site and ten minutes later to order it again from another, allowing patients to receive multiple prescriptions. In the UK, prescriptions for opioid-based medication have increased 60 per cent in the last 10 years to 23 million annually, according to the Department of Health.

Just as worrying is the threat of fake drugs getting into the supply system, potentially putting patients’ health and lives at risk. The counterfeit drug industry is estimated to be worth US $200 billion worldwide and the World Health Organisation has warned that as many as 50 per cent of drugs sold online are fraudulent. The financial cost is enormous as is the threat posed to public health.

Technology to track prescriptions 

New technology has made a dramatic difference to medical treatment and the healthcare system and MediConnect believes blockchain technology can do the same for tracking prescription drugs ordered online.

Our system, using distributed ledger technology (DLT) and blockchain is not an attempt to address the enormous issue of IT compatibility across the whole health service, but by applying it at a specific level it can make a big impact very quickly and help solve serious problems facing society.

We are developing a decentralised system within the pharmaceutical industry that can provide a safety net for vulnerable patients. It will equip the whole supply chain, including manufacturers, logistics companies, wholesalers, pharmacies and prescribers, with the tools they need to track products and have confidence in the provenance of pharmaceuticals. It will revolutionise the way medication is managed and traced in the UK.

MediConnect has spent two years building this solution and we aim to complete a proof of concept later this year with two well established companies, online pharmacy UK Meds and health provider Tower Health & Pharmacy, both of which were instrumental in forming the business after recognising a serious problem in the market. They have a combined user base of more than 300,000 customers and handle approximately 30,000 transactions a month. We are planning to complete a pilot with 10 pharmacies later this year and help protect one million customers by mid-2020.

The MediConnect blockchain solution is being built by Stratis Group, blockchain developers and consultants with a track record in a wide range of enterprise sectors including pharmaceuticals. Our system works in two ways: the first as a private DLT tracking transactions and sharing GDPR-compliant customer prescription data, and the second to provide a token that will fund transactions.

A secure trail from manufacturer to patient

The DLT of transactions will be a private, permissioned blockchain, with restrictions on who can participate. It will store confidential patient prescription data and the provenance data for medicines, creating an immutable audit trail from manufacturer to customer.

In this DLT, the manufacturer will create drug serial codes that are registered on the blockchain and can be tracked through it. Not only does it give traceability of genuine drugs, it will also enable the industry to identify the source of counterfeit or tainted drugs. Where drug recalls are issued, it will help target them at specific, individual patients.

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Logistics companies can use it for real-time tracking and for them and wholesalers it can improve the efficiency of storage and inventory. Pharmacies can avoid fraudulent prescriptions by unqualified professionals and multiple applications by patients. Healthcare professionals will only issue prescriptions after a patient has passed a know-your-customer check and been given a verified blockchain identity. The ability to see patients’ other prescriptions will avoid over-prescription and reduce health problems caused by the interaction of multiple drugs. For all users it will reduce administration time and cut down on paperwork.

For the patient, the system will allow them to nominate prescriptions from the online or physical pharmacy of their choice and check their own records, holding their prescriptions in a digital wallet.

The second element of the MediConnect system is the MEDI token which will be hosted on the public blockchain. It can be used as payment and exchangeable for fiat currency, while offering security and confidentiality. Not only will it reduce the costs of traditional bank card fees and currency exchange rates for the companies involved, pharmacies will also be able to use the token in reward and loyalty programmes where they can be exchanged to purchase medicines, cosmetics or healthcare products. For instance, patients who agree to being paid for data being used by drugs manufacturers and research organisations can earn tokens as rewards.

Dexter Blackstock

A tool to aid tighter regulation

The rapid development of online pharmacies means regulators have had to act quickly to keep up with the pace of change. We want to be at the forefront of new regulations and help fill the void that has opened in this particular area of compliance.

Regulators will have the highest level of access rights to our system, enabling them to see all transactions and giving them complete visibility across the whole supply chain, from patient to manufacturer.

We welcome and support the updated regulation for online pharmacies issued by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) in April 2019. It brings in stronger safeguards for patients by ensuring medicines are clinically appropriate, tougher standards for certain categories of prescription-only medicines, enhanced transparency and patient choice and strengthened regulatory oversight.

The MediConnect system tackles the broad issues raised by the GPhC and addresses the specifics, such as the need for strong identity checks on patients to make sure the right medicines reach the right person and avoids inappropriate multiple orders being made from the same address or using the same payment details.

Our platform is designed to be closely aligned with the requirements of regulators and we believe it will offer a new gold standard to ensure the highest levels of patient care and tackle some of the biggest problems facing society.

About the author

With well over 100 years experience between us, we've been around the editorial and medical blocks a few times. But we're still as keen as any young pup to root out what's new and inspiring.

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