Can Blockchain Fix the Opioid Epidemic? Intel Wants to Find Out

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 health-care 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.

Unaccounted Pills

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 Food and Drug Administration 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 prescribed 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.

Reaching the Patient

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

Blockchain could eventually help track a drug all the way to the point when it’s ingested by a patient, while using the encrypted nature of the technology to safeguard privacy.

The startup ISolve is working on a system called BlockRx that would connect everyone from drug companies to medical-device makers via blockchain.

“We’d be able to say, ‘This patient took this medicine at that time,’” said Darryl Glover, chief clinical officer at iSolve.

Until now, the job of tracking prescriptions has mostly fallen to state-level drug-monitoring programs. Their databases can help identify problems, such as “pill mills” that overprescribe painkillers or patients who “doctor shop” for extra prescriptions.

Between States

One big problem is that patients can travel across state lines to get new prescriptions.

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