September 1, 2020

by Lucas O’Brien

By 2013, the currency “Bitcoin” had been around for two years. Due to its instability, few took Bitcoin seriously as a proof of concept for the technology known as “the blockchain.” At this point, Bitcoin was valued at roughly $13. By the time Bitcoin reached its zenith value of $19,783, people had already begun endorsing blockchain as the future of electronic data management. Unfortunately, akin to the term “artificial intelligence” in the context of computers, or perhaps “organic” in the context of packaged food, “blockchain” had become a buzzword with little public understanding.

While the excitement of Bitcoin has declined significantly since 2017, the integration of blockchain technology made popular by the currency has continued into various industries dealing with large volumes of data. But what exactly is blockchain technology? How could its use affect healthcare and pharmacy practice?

At a fundamental level, a blockchain is a digital ledger that houses cryptographically organized data. Instead of being owned and operated by a central authority, blockchain ledgers are distributed among the community that accesses them. This means that any data held in a blockchain is immutable, or unchangeable, so that any changes made to a single block will be corrected when compared against all existing copies of the ledger.

Careful Implementation Required

Implementing blockchain technology within pharmacy and other healthcare systems must be done with great care. Data stored on a blockchain is immutable, but it is also widely distributed by design. This means that if a single node suffers a breach of security, the entire data set risks exposure. For this reason, blockchain technology is combined with modern encryption standards when handling sensitive data. This is an important consideration in the pharmacy space, as such data may contain personal health information protected by law, sensitive financial information, or intellectual property.

Implementing blockchain technology within pharmacy and other healthcare systems must be done with great care.

Connecting Drug Supply Chains

According to ASHP, there are many purposes for which blockchain has been formally discussed. One major such application is in the drug supply chain and the practice of pharmacovigilance. While there is already infrastructure in place to monitor the distribution, sale, and even return of individual units of prescription medication, the introduction of blockchain technology to this space would add unprecedented interoperability with different systems, transparency where necessary, and dependability of the data being recorded.

Sharing Patient Medication History

Another potential use lies in the sharing of individual patients’ medication history. The use of blockchain in a system like this could provide a singular secure and universally accessible database for patients, pharmacists, and other healthcare providers to access and update medical records quickly and efficiently. Adoption of a system of this scale would certainly require time, cooperation, and possibly even legislation before it could happen. As reported by the NASDAQ, up-front costs for starting a blockchain environment are very high, but the efficiency of its use promises savings over time. With these qualities taken into consideration, it will be interesting to see if blockchain will indeed become as widespread in healthcare as its proponents suggest, or if it will be replaced by some future technology before it sees popular adoption.

Lucas O’Brien is a junior at Cedarville University and a Student Innovator in the Center for Pharmacy Innovation.

The Cedarville University School of Pharmacy is equipping its Doctor of Pharmacy students to be on the leading edge of healthcare innovation. Cedarville’s Pharm.D. students are fully prepared to begin a rewarding career as a pharmacist and to use their calling to make a difference for Christ as they serve with excellence and compassion.

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