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Cure For Counterfeit Drugs?

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Blockchain technology is also revolutionizing supply chains in the pharmaceutical industry, in the process, helping track fake medicines.

From genomics to robotics, technology is truly revolutionizing the healthcare sector. And while it’s easy to become consumed by exciting, futuristic trends like artificial intelligence (AI) diagnosis, digitized patient records and 3D-printed medical tools, technology is also transforming the pharmaceutical industry. How medication is prescribed, dispensed and administered is big business with McKinsey predicting the value of Africa’s pharmaceutical industry to be $65 billion in 2020.

But fake drugs are an ongoing and complex issue – they can cause death, have unknown side-effects, fail to treat illnesses, and sometimes even add to the spread of disease. According to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, 42% of detected cases of falsified (or substandard) pharmaceuticals occur in Africa – reports estimate that between 72,000 and 169,000 children die each year from pneumonia because of counterfeit antibiotics while fake malaria drugs cause an additional 64,000 –158,000 deaths every year in sub-Saharan Africa. Both antimalarials and antibiotics sit among the most commonly-reported counterfeited drugs.

“Fake medicine distribution is rampant because business processes are siloed between the various industry stakeholders, which puts the industry at risk of fraud,” explains Heidi Patmore, a marketing consultant specializing in technology that’s changing consumer behavior.

“One solution to this would be cross-company process automation which could easily be enabled by a blockchain data interchange. This creates an open information system that all players can use to verify the authenticity of medication because it can track and trace it from when it’s manufactured to when it is dispensed to the patient.”

Companies such as IBM and SAP are working on blockchain solutions to weed out Africa’s counterfeit medication network. When medicine is returned to pharmaceutical manufacturers, for example, it is often re-sold instead of being destroyed. How can a small local pharmacy ensure what is returned is authentic? SAP are working with their existing client base – Merck, GSK, Ingelheim, McKesson and others – on a blockchain project to verify that any returned drugs are original.

IBM Research’s solution for Africa (currently in development in Haifa, Israel) includes a mobile interface and permissioned blockchain backend that enables each certified and authorized party in the network to initiate action, finish their transaction, and track its progress.

“It also includes the monitoring of temperature to ensure compliance with the proper conditions for transportation and asset transfer,” adds Inna Skarbovsky, a blockchain architect from IBM Research – Haifa. “Blockchain ensures full provenance for each medicine package, uniquely identified with a barcode or a serial number. This makes it possible for all authorized parties to track the drugs through the entire supply chain and the drugs’ life-cycle.”

This also allows significant cost reductions by eliminating each participant’s need to manage a separate system for traceability of its components. “It also improves procedural efficiency for change-of-hands, make it much harder for counterfeit drugs to be introduced into the supply chain and to be distributed to end-users,” says Skarbovsky.

Towett Ngetich, CEO of Uthabiti Health, a Kenya-based pharmaceutical company

Towett Ngetich is the CEO of Uthabiti Health, a Kenya-based pharmaceutical company that has implemented blockchain to bring transparency and accountability back to a country where statistics show that 30% of medicines sold are counterfeit. Uthabiti, which means ‘verify’ in Swahili, was started after Ngetich’s first-hand experience with the effects of fake health products: “Back in university, a significant number of students fell victim to unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortions. With deep research, it was uncovered that there had been a supply of fake contraceptives and backstreet abortion pills into the student market,” explains Ngetich. More findings showed the presence of fake antibiotics, antiretrovirals (ARVs) and non-communicable diseases (NCD) medicines in the Kenyan pharmaceutical supply chain.

“Pharmaceutical science is the center of healthcare – one mistake in any drug composition or formulation has the risk of endangering a significant number of people. The need to access safe, affordable and quality health products in its simplest form means life and death in diagnosed health complications. Blockchain gives patients the ability to track and trace products using attached IDs – it also gives Uthabiti Health the ability to know where all our health products sit within each supply chain,” he says. Uthabiti Health procures medicines from different pharmaceutical manufacturers. Once received, they go to an internal laboratory for quality testing and are then labeled with the product’s safety lab report – attached in their codes is a unique blockchain ID. The medicines are then passed on to their partnering retail points, ensuring that the medicines dispensed to patients can be verified with something as simple as a text message.

“This brings in consumers in safe-proofing the supply chain of pharmaceuticals,” adds Ngetich.

The proliferation of fake drugs throughout Africa is complex – on average, medicine changes 30 hands before reaching the destined pharmacy – but blockchain technology has great potential to help stop counterfeit medicine distribution because it brings traceability and trackability to the entire pharmaceutical supply chain, ensuring the immutability of information. 

Blockchain ethics?

Candice De Carvalho

While blockchain is still a relatively niche technology, it is slowly changing how organizations operate. Blockchain promises better security and transparency, but not necessarily for the customer, in the case of drug allocation: “Where blockchain technology could likely increase efficiency and simultaneously decrease the abuse of medicines, customers benefit. The pharmaceutical and related industries are unique however, in that the ‘consumer’ is also a patient – a vulnerable group with special needs and rights,” explains Candice De Carvalho, the founder of Easy Ethics CPD.

Although overall transparency in the supply chain increases through the use of blockchain, and this confers patient benefits, these must be weighed against patient privacy and confidentiality. 

“With emerging technologies more freely available, we’ve observed an interesting shift in patient behavior, where data privacy is regarded less as an absolute by patients, in favor of a kind of sliding scale, where privacy itself is a currency that purchases medical benefits along the way,” adds De Carvalho. “Patients, for the right benefits, are perhaps more willing to part with some privacy privileges.”

De Carvalho questions the genuine knowledge that patients have of any exposure they experience through their use of novel medical device or systems innovations. The key drivers for the business are not necessarily unified with the total needs of the patient. However, the more the technology owners protect and balance the patient’s need for confidentiality and consent, the more they will ultimately see business benefit. 

“In the context of a doctor-patient relationship, the doctor has a positive duty to enhance patient understanding so that the patient enjoys a truly informed consent. Does this then mean that technology providers are now responsible in the same way that medical health workers are?” she ends.

-Tiana Cline

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