The applications of blockchain in the Pharmaceutical industry

Written by Helen Blomfield and Kabil Ghhogra

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Every day sees a new headline about the developing uses of blockchain and the vast arrays of new applications being unrolled on the back of the technology. It’s been an industry buzzword for two years now. But, most conversations about blockchain are still interrupted by a quiet, embarrassed question about ten minutes in: what exactly is blockchain?

In this blog series, we’ll be covering blockchain and its potential applications in the pharmaceutical industry. This  four post series will cover the following:

  • Introduction to blockchain

  • Applications across the supply chain: logistics, counterfeiting, patient usage

  • Applications in clinical trials: smart contracts, transparency and audit

  • An evaluation of current technologies and our conclusion

What is a blockchain?

In effect, a blockchain is a kind of immutable (unchangeable) digital ledger.

The starting data is contained in a block, and given an identifying hash (a series of numbers and letters that is used to identify the block, similar to a fingerprint). Every time a change is made to the data, a new block is created – like a read-only document that has to be saved as a new version. This new block is given its own ID and links back to the previous block’s ID.

As the blocks build up, they form a time-stamped chain that can be traced back to its source from any point.

The entire chain is stored on multiple computers (nodes) across a network. Any change to the chain must be approved by all the nodes and must be consistent with the information they hold.

Picture a set of lawyers going over a contract – if you try to make an edit to an old document and suggest it was there all along, they’ll reject it. If someone unauthorized tries to cross out a paragraph, they’ll be thrown out of the office. If an authorized representative wants to add a clause to the contract, however, and everyone agrees to it, they’ll add it in to a new version of the contract and that will be the version everyone then uses.

What problems can blockchain solve in the Pharmaceutical industry?

So, blockchain provides a traceable, uneditable document change tracker – but what challenges can that solve?

Effectively, blockchain can be applied to any situation where knowing when changes were made to an object is valuable, or to any situation where being able to trace its origin is useful.

Imagine being able to see how a drug was produced, at which factory a particular drug originated, the distributor it was then delivered to, the pharmacy the distributor sent it out to – and then, eventually, the patient the drug is sold to. Not only would this help in quality control, it would also help prevent counterfeiting.

Blockchain could also effectively apply in clinical trials. Imagine having a contract attached to patient data that shows their continued consent or authorization throughout the process – or alternatively, when they’ve revoked it. The tool could also make it possible to see if doctors have withdrawn bad data from the process and when they’ve withdrawn it.

These are just a few of the many cases that we’ll be discussing in our future blog posts. Sign up to our mailing list to be alerted when we publish our next blockchain article.

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