Can blockchain fix the opioid epidemic?

VANCOUVER • Digital currencies have been accused of worsening the opioid crisis because they make it easier to buy and sell drugs anonymously.

Now, Intel Corp and the pharmaceutical industry are planning to fight fire with fire.

The chipmaker, working with health companies, aims to use so-called blockchain technology — similar to the one that underpins the digital currency bitcoin — to better trace drugs and potentially stem the epidemic.

The idea is to pinpoint where drugs leak out of the supply chain. Blockchain also could help flag “double doctoring”, where an addicted patient takes out more than one prescription from multiple physicians.

“It will vastly reduce the opioid epidemic,” said David Houlding, director of healthcare privacy and security at Intel Health and Life Sciences. “I would not say this will eliminate the opioid problem, but this will help.”

The approach is being tested this spring, when Johnson & Johnson, McKesson Corp and other companies enter simulated data into new digital ledgers.

The experiment will see how easy it is to track pills as they travel from the manufacturer all the way to a patient’s home.

Their tests could progress to a live pilot project and possibly a limited deployment by year-end, said Intel’s Houlding, whose company is providing some of the technology.

The ultimate goal, he said, is for all drug-related companies and their suppliers worldwide to be on blockchain, an online ledger that can’t be erased.

Then, government agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could potentially plug into the blockchain and provide oversight, he said.

The opioid crisis has been driven by booming prescriptions sold to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices. They nearly quadrupled in the first decade of 2000s, despite no signs that Americans were reporting more pain.

One study showed that every year more than 100 million pills pre-scribed just for tooth extractions may go unused and unaccounted for.

Opioids include the illegal drug heroin, prescription painkillers like OxyContin, and street versions mimicking their effects such as fentanyl. Deaths from overdoses have been steadily rising for 16 years. Roughly 115 Americans die on average each day from an overdose.

The severity of the epidemic has attracted a broad swath of businesses and organisations, including technology companies.

Intel is working on fighting the opioid crisis as part of a broader industry effort coordinated by the Centre for Supply Chain Studies. Its aim is to help the pharmaceutical industry comply with the Drug Supply Chain Security Act, which requires companies to better track medicines.

The key to the project’s success will be getting as many companies as possible to use the same system. It also will depend on everyone entering the drug data correctly, which is a challenge. Since many opioids come from China, those may continue to fall through the cracks.

“Ultimately, it needs to go worldwide,” Intel’s Houlding said. — Bloomberg