No matter how much TV shows and movies make drugs look cool, they aren’t. Drug abuse is a worldwide epidemic and real people are suffering. The UN estimates that there are 29.5 million people around the world with drug use disorders.
What makes this scarier is that much of the drug problem isn’t found in seedy back alleys, crack houses, or even Hollywood mansions. It’s found in average homes where people are getting their fix from legal medication — pills that doctors prescribe which people can pick up from their corner drug stores.
Part of solving this problem is ensuring that the right medicine reaches only the people that need them. The healthcare industry has turned to technology to help address the issue. Projects such as MediLedger and BlockMedx are even leveraging emerging technologies such as blockchain to provide security and transparency to pharmaceutical supply chains.
Legal medication abuse
Painkillers, alongside sleeping pills and anxiety medication, are among the most abused legal substances. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 42,000 deaths from opioid overdose were recorded in 2016 in the US. The youth are the most at risk. Prevalence of misuse is highest among Americans aged 12 to 25.
Many abusers start by experimenting with medication available at homes. Often, these substances serve as gateway drugs that lead users to explore more dangerous ones later on. Eventually, they tend to try out pills with stronger mind-altering effects.
Addiction can prompt them to commit prescription fraud. Some attempt to con doctors to get legitimate prescriptions or have pharmacies fulfill fake prescriptions.
Michael Brunner, CEO of BlockMedx, says, “The current system for prescribing and filling the most highly controlled and dangerous medications is astounding. Prescriptions are hand-written on prescription paper, which often contains poor security features, and hand delivered by the patient to pharmacies. This creates an environment where prescriptions can be easily forged, copied or altered.”
These substances can also be obtained illicitly through dubious parties. Supply often comes from supply chain theft and manufacture of counterfeit drugs.
Supply chain vulnerabilities
There has been mounting pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to ensure that their products don’t end up in the wrong hands. Gaps in supply chain security do exist. Fraud and theft can happen even as early as the production and transport of raw materials. Each point afterwards can be a weak link too, as products move from manufacturing, to distribution, and dispensing.
Simply trusting other stakeholders to transmit and deliver safe products has become highly unreliable. Malicious posers may be found at any part of the supply chain. Raw materials can be stolen or bought illegally to create fake versions of these drugs.
Counterfeiting drugs has become a global industry with well-organized operators. The market is estimated to be between $163 and $217 billion a year. In addition, even genuine products may also be stolen from deliveries and warehouses and can then later be sold in black markets and through traffickers. Genuine drugs can be also “cut” or mixed with other substances to dilute them and increase the illegal dealers’ supply. Such tampering could contaminate these drugs making them even more unsafe.
The sale of certain substances also has to be monitored and secured due to the active ingredients in the substances. Cold medicine Sudafed, for instance, is used by amateur cooks to make methamphetamine, and yet, Sudafed is found behind the counter at pharmacies available to all for purchase.
Governments are keen on solving the issue as well. Aside from active drug enforcement campaigns, key pieces of legislation are being passed to compel the industry to adopt measures preventing drug abuse. In the US, the Drug Supply Chain Security Act is requiring dispensers, manufacturers, and distributors to provide tracing information for all the drugs that go through them. This would help guarantee that only genuine and uncontaminated products are passed along the supply chain.
How blockchain helps
Drug supply chain stakeholders are scrambling to comply with laws. New technologies like tracking technology and blockchain are proving to be quite useful in bringing security, transparency and immutability to tracking information.
For example, schizophrenia drug Abilify MyCite features a digital sensor and tracking system that keeps track of ingestion. While the technology is aimed to help patients keep track of their use, such a technology can also be used to combat counterfeiting and drug abuse.
On the supply side, Pharma giants Pfizer and Genentech teamed up to with several other players to launch the MediLedger Project. The effort aims to enable manufacturers, wholesalers, and hospitals to have immutable records of how the products move through the delivery process. This way, malicious agents can be deterred from exploiting the supply chain helping ensure that only safe and drugs reach the market.
Blockchain startup BlockMedx has been working on an end-to-end prescription platform using the Ethereum blockchain. The platform uses a clever system that uses crypto tokens to facilitate transactions. Prescriptions that are transmitted using the platform can be verified together with the physician and patient’s details. Doctors will be able to explore their own prescription history and even revoke prescriptions if they believe something is amiss. Pharmacies could also ensure that they will be fulfilling legitimate prescriptions.
“Fraud and abuse abound in a system with such broad security holes and it’s time that a comprehensive solution was developed to combat them. BlockMedx is developing one such solution. Blockchain technology is a perfect fit for this use-case. Prescriptions can no longer be altered or forged and the identity of stakeholders in the system can be formally verified. A prescription transaction so closely mirrors a financial transaction (for which blockchains are such a good use-case) that using blockchain technology for prescriptions is really a homerun,” Brunner adds.
Building trust, saving lives
Such systems encourage drug supply chain stakeholders to ensure the quality and authenticity of the products they send out and receive. Since blockchain makes transactions transparent, it would be easy for stakeholders to pinpoint issues and perform interventions accordingly. It would be easier to contain the abuse and misuse of these substances by making it hard for malicious players to game and exploit the system
These efforts also show that fighting substance abuse isn’t solely dependent upon waging an active war on drugs. Building trust among stakeholders could also help. Through the adoption of these new technologies, more lives can be saved and crime rates could be lowered.