Whether it is information, money or goods, the transactions are the foundation of trade and industry. In the digital age, however, this aspect too has undergone transformations. The action has moved to the IT level and the search for safety and efficiency is constant. The blockchain is a useful tool in this sense and its great potential also affects the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors.
A transparent and shared register
The driving force behind the development of the blockchain was the need for a reliable, affordable, secure and efficient tool for conducting and tracking economic transactions. Its first use was as a ledger for transactions in Bitcoin, the famous and controversial cryptocurrency coined in 2009 by Satoshi Nakamoto (whose true identity is still unknown).
It’s a digital ledger shared between the parties, who are the nodes of the chain: to be valid, a transaction must be approved by everyone. Each user therefore has access to the contents in a transparent way and the transactions, once registered, cannot be modified. In the event of an error, a new transaction brings the situation back to square one. This guarantees the complete traceability of every single action and the possibility of always having the updated history available for every single asset. Finally, security is guaranteed by an encrypted system and it is also possible to set up different access levels.
The blockchain was therefore born as an IT tool to collect and track the transitions in a commercial network. But the basic concept can be extended to other uses, which can also include pharma and healthcare.
The blockchain beyond the Bitcoin
A blockchain doesn’t have to be built to handle economic transactions. The concept of block network can in fact bring advantages also in other situations. Take, for example, the management of a patient’s health information. The creation of the digital health record has great potential, but in practice the difficulties of implementation are many. A shared dossier that uses blockchain logic could make this innovation smoother. All parties would have to update and consult a single virtual record and the patient would have easier access to information, which could also be integrated with the outputs of health monitoring applications and devices.
In the pharmaceutical field, the developments are even more. First of all, the supply chain could benefit from this mechanism, which would reduce its fragmentation and increase its traceability. All stakeholders would use a single integrated and reliable tool in order to:
- speed up processes;
- increase security and counterfeiting control;
- facilitate the monitoring of the integrity of the product in the various steps from the manufacturer to the patient.
Furthermore, a blockchain-style management system could be applied to the flow that accompanies the production of a drug. Starting from raw materials and active ingredients, up to semi-finished and finished product, suppliers, subcontractors and MA holders would consult and compile a single register, with advantages also in terms of audits and of data integrity.
The future of blockchain in pharma and healthcare
Despite the promised benefits, pharma investments in the blockchain are struggling to take off. In particular, at a global level, 2020 saw a decline of 6% compared to the previous year, according to a survey conducted by GlobalData. According to the London-based analysis firm, the motivation is to be found in the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic which, despite having encouraged the digital transition, has shortened the strategic vision of companies. Investments with long-term benefits, such as those envisaged by the blockchain, have therefore taken a back seat.
However, according to the same survey, expectations for the future are rosy. In fact, 23% of respondents expect their company to invest in tools such as the blockchain in the two-year period 2021-2022. Among the reasons there is still the health emergency which, despite having slowed down the implementation of this technology, has at the same time revealed gaps and weaknesses that the blockchain could help to heal.