The blockchain may be famous as the technology that underpins the Bitcoin, but it could also play an important role in transforming healthcare.

What makes blockchain so potentially useful to the health industry is that it offers a decentralized database that is immutable and unforgeable.

According to Jim Nasr, who until recently was chief software architect at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the guarantees offered by that database could help tackle one of the most pressing issues in the field: stamping out counterfeit drugs.

“Counterfeit drugs are a real problem, the estimate for economic loss is about $200bn, and of course, it’s more than financial, we’re also talking about lives being lost,” he said, speaking to TechRepublic at the London Blockchain Week summit.

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“Somewhere up to about a million people have died because of counterfeit drugs, because they think they’re getting some aspirin but the reality is some low-quality mishmash.”

A number of start-ups, such as FarmaTrust, already offer tracking systems based on blockchain designed to keep counterfeit drugs out of the supply chain.

However, just using blockchain to improve the efficiency of the pharmaceutical supply chain, by automating manual processes, could have a profound impact, according to Nasr, now VP for technology & innovation at health tech firm Synchrogenix.

“The inefficiency of the drug supply chain leads to two major problems. One is that it increases the cost of drugs, the other is that it increases the time it takes for a compound to go from discovery all the way to being approved by the FDA in the US,” he said.

“So if it’s a drug that’s very important for saving lives, let’s say for instance a cancer drug, if it’s taken 10 years to go from conception to being approved, well if that time could be cut down, especially through [eliminating] unnecessary and manual processes, and more efficient ways of doing things, that could save lives. That drug could get to market faster, it could be approved faster.”

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Using blockchain technologies to improve the quality of the supply chain is what Nasr has focused on, although he says most of the projects to use blockchain at the CDC are still in the proof of concept phase.

Among these trial projects is an attempt to use the blockchain to improve information sharing, by using decentralized blockchain-based databases to share information about health crises and threats between a wide range of public health agencies, hospitals, pharmacies.

However, using blockchain to handle identifiable patient information will be far more challenging he said, due to the lack of standardized national systems for handling identity management.

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