Tatsiana Levdikova, content marketer at OpenLedger ApS, a blockchain development company, writes about the opioid epidemic in the US and if blockchain is the answer.
At great cost to human life, opioid abuse has become a major problem in the United States and is serious enough to be considered an epidemic by the government. With almost 50k deaths in 2017 and millions of people abusing opioid prescriptions, this is a major problem without an easy solution.
Can blockchain technology in healthcare be part of the solution to stop this prescription drug abuse? First, we have to look at how people are able to abuse prescriptions in the first place.
Typically, a doctor will prescribe a certain amount and a patient walking into their local pharmacy could only fill the prescription once. Technology has made it much more convenient to buy prescription medication, and you can even order it online so you don’t have to leave the house. Unfortunately, that convenience comes with a price.
Online prescription abuse
When you buy prescription drugs online, there’s typically some sort of online ID check to verify that the prescription is indeed for you. The problem lies in the fact that there is no central database that tracks when prescriptions have been filled online.
There are so many online vendors for medications that people are able to just fill the same prescription from multiple online sources. What’s worse, by creating multiple online accounts for the same store, people were able to buy hundreds of pills from the very same vendor without it flagging in their system.
A recent Guardian investigation revealed some shocking inconsistencies and practices at online pharmacies. One patient was able to fill the same prescription four times in a single month from the same retailer, using different online accounts they created, and it was not detected by the online seller.
The addictive quality of these pain-killers combined with an easy-to-abuse online pharmacy marketplace is a recipe for tragedy. With profits to be made from online drug sales, the rush to enter the online marketplace often outweighs the work needed to create a safe system.
Are doctors to blame?
Many people point to the increases in opioid pain-reliever prescriptions starting in the 90’s as a major driver of the crisis, but evidence shows that it’s mostly prescription abuse. Also, powerful drugs like Fentanyl are being used to lace heroin, and because it’s many more times powerful than heroin, overdoses are spiking.
The lower cost of some of these pharmaceutical-grade pain-killers is too much of a draw for drug dealers who abuse the same online pharmacies to acquire the prescription drugs and then proceed with their illicit drug supply.
In recent years, opioid pain-reliever prescription rates have been dropping, but until the misuse of prescriptions and the gaming of the online pharmacy industry can be addressed, we will continue to see high abuse, overdose, and unfortunately death rates.
Blockchain and online prescriptions
One potential solution to shore up the abuse of online drug sales is to integrate blockchain technology into the systems used by the online sellers.
Using blockchain technology, it is possible to have a prescription filled only once. Ultimately, a central interoperable system would need to be created for all online resellers to get connected to it, protecting patients from purchasing on multiple websites.
Essentially, once a prescription is filled, that is entered into the blockchain, and if someone attempts to fill it again, the record of the first one will block the second filling. The transparency, security, and stability of the data in the blockchain will prevent people from abusing these online pharmacies.
Blockchain and digital identity
Another way that blockchain can help to curb the opioid epidemic is through a secure digital identity. Many companies are working on blockchain-based identity solutions that will securely verify your identity online. This will prevent fraud and the use of alternate IDs, as well as tying your identification with the prescription.
Currently, customers just upload photo IDs, and abusers use multiple IDs or that of family members to help game the system and place multiple orders on the same prescription. If their identification as well as the prescription was tied to a blockchain, it will truly ensure that only the patient can fill it, and only for the prescribed amount.
Technology can combat the epidemic
In a way, technology has contributed to the epidemic through online drug sales and the ease of abuse. Drug prescribing has been on the decline, but by cheating the system and taking advantage of gaps in online information, patients have been able to buy an almost unlimited amount of these powerful, dangerous and addictive painkillers.
Drug dealers have used fraudulent means to acquire these prescription drugs and add them into their illegal drugs, creating a dangerous cocktail that is killing over a hundred people a day in the US. By creating and integrating a cross-platform blockchain identity and prescription control system, the opioid epidemic could see a real decrease.