The hype surrounding blockchain technology shows no sign of slowing down. While much of the attention has considered its impact on the financial sector, there are many other sectors where its use is being explored. One area is healthcare. For example, blockchain could be used in clinical trials to overcome the problems of fraudulent results, and to enforce integrity in clinical trials by allowing for an immutable log to be kept of trial subject consent. Blockchain could also be used for tracking drugs by providing a capability to track the chain of custody from supply chain to patients, allowing for frictionless recalls and prevention of counterfeit drugs.
What is blockchain?
Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology which consists of a chain of blocks secured by cryptographic measures. There are various types of blockchain models which all use different consensus methods. One blockchain trust model which is becoming more prevalent is the consortium model which relies on a pre-defined group of trusted parties. In the UK healthcare sector, such a group could be made up of NHS Trusts, and medicine and medical device manufacturers. By executing smart contracts (i.e. a self-executing contract with the terms of the agreement between the parties written into the lines of code) solely on these trusted parties' hardware, consensus will be generated without the need for an independent verification system. This is more scalable, efficient and reduces costs.
How could blockchain assist the Life Sciences sector?
Blockchain models and consensus mechanisms could be adopted on a global scale across all stages of drug development and testing, including:
- Improving medical records and data sharing by patients (as the data owners) within both public and private health systems, limiting the duplication of patient testing and ensuring faster and more accurate treatment;
- Prescription management and tracking;
- Verification of drug quality and authenticity by way of recall management and the prevention of counterfeit drugs;
- Identifying evaluable patients for clinical trials where patients have agreed to third parties analysing their medical records for clinical studies; and
- Clinical trial data sharing quickly and in a transparent and secure manner.
Blockchain models could easily cut costs in respect of all healthcare services. However, until the interoperability between public and private blockchains is established and hospitals, drug developers, manufacturers, and other organisations confirm that they are willing to cooperate to build the technical infrastructure required, progress and adoption will likely continue to be slow.
New blockchain models and consensus mechanisms are constantly being developed. As this evolves, we are likely to see an increased uptake of this technology in the health care and life sciences industry. However, there are still many legal, regulatory and commercial barriers to adoption that must be overcome.
The opportunities are immeasurable and the sector should take advantage of this rapidly developing technology.