Blockchain being put to work by IBM, Intel, CDC to combat opioid epidemic

Tracking prescription and population health data: Add this to blockchain’s growing list of innovative use cases.
By Mike Miliard
05:00 PM
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Of all the cutting-edge innovations currently buzzing in healthcare there is one that takes the latest and greatest crown: Blockchain.

For all its hype, and there is still plenty of that, blockchain's potential to impact any number of healthcare challenges that depend on secure data management and exchange is very real. Even if Gartner says it's overhyped at the moment, the tech is nearing a "breakout moment."

Technology firms – a handful of blue-chip behemoths and scores of Silicon Valley startups – are working diligently to turn the promise of cryptographic ledger technology into real-world efficiencies in healthcare and beyond.

While operational and financial use cases such as supply chain and revenue cycle often get the most attention, blockchain's potential for other big clinical challenges, such as patient safety and population health, are also being piloted by some big tech companies with the backing of federal agencies.

As we noted in 2017, IBM Watson partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as an extension of other blockchain-based public health work Big Blue is doing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to explore new applications for blockchain in healthcare.

Since then, CDC has been running several pilots to probe blockchain's real-world promise, and seeking more healthcare participants to join in.

Distributed ledger tech's potential for managing patient data over time and across care settings, especially when deployed with emerging artificial intelligence capabilities, is huge, said IBM Chief Science Officer Shahram Ebadollahi at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in October 2017.

"Blockchain is very useful when there are so many actors in the system," he said. "It enables the ecosystem of data in healthcare to have more fluidity, and AI allows us to extract insights from the data. Everybody talks about big data in healthcare but I think the more important thing is long data."

Three different strategies for stemming an epidemic

This week, Fast Company reported on IBM's work with CDC, specifically a promising project to make use of that longitudinal data to help stem the widening opioid epidemic.

Working with CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, IBM has made strides developing a blockchain-enabled health surveillance system that makes it easier for public health agencies to survey hospitals and physicians about their patients and prescription practices. The work has included surveys to collect data on patients seeking care and how doctors prescribe antibiotics and opioids, according to Fast Company.

IBM isn't the only company convinced of blockchain's ability to do battle with opioid addiction.  This spring, for instance, Intel embarked on innovating another approach to fighting prescription drug abuse, Bloomberg reported on Intel's work.

Digital currencies have been accused of worsening the opioid crisis because they make it easier to buy and sell drugs anonymously.

In a pilot project with pharma industry giants (including McKesson and Johnson & Johnson), Intel is developing ways to deploy blockchain as a means to better trace how pills are distributed from point to point.

That could "vastly reduce the opioid epidemic," David Houlding, director of healthcare privacy and security at Intel told Bloomberg. "I would not say this will eliminate the opioid problem, but this will help."

While such a supply chain-based approach to mitigating the opioid epidemic looks logical in its broad strokes, another blockchain player, Hashed Health, offered its own perspective on the challenge and another potential strategy.

"Concerned parties suggesting Blockchain as a single solution for the opioid epidemic often attribute the liability for abuse to the physician who prescribes the opioid or to the pharmacist at the point of fulfillment," Hashed Health explained on its website. "In this model, the responsible parties are deemed as those who issue the opiates. While pragmatic from the supply chain management perspective, a more robust understanding of the epidemic suggests that culpability for addiction entails more than supply chain dynamics."

Beyond merely trying to track the distribution, use and misuse of opioids, blockchain could help power an even more fundamental approach to patient safety, the company said – playing a "pivotal role in the research and development of opiate alternatives."

By laying the groundwork for a "decentralized database of test results with free access to this data," Hashed Health added, blockchain "prevents the possibility of duplicated efforts globally as well as enhanced coordination across projects."

Focus on Innovation

In September, we take a deep dive into the cutting-edge development and disruption of healthcare innovation.

Twitter: @MikeMiliardHITN
Email the writer: mike.miliard@himssmedia.com