PHARMA FIRMS CAN SOLVE ISSUES OF TRUST WITH BLOCKCHAIN. BUT ARE THEY WILLING TO?
For a very long time, the pharmaceutical industry has had the wind in its sails. Revolutionary drugs called “blockbusters” were released into the market to cure, until then, fatal diseases, laboratories were the main source of innovation in the medical field and firms were making great profit. Unfortunately, the situation has drastically changed during the last decade. Innovating in rare diseases became no longer profitable and with patents passing into the public domain, pharmaceutical companies tried to find easier ways to make money. The industry’s change in strategy led to a collapse of public trust and recent scandals have not improved the situation. Solving Big Pharma’s Trust Issues With Blockchain
In 2013, the Guardian reports: “The amphetamine derivative Mediator was marketed to overweight diabetics, but often prescribed to healthy women as an appetite suppressant when they wanted to lose a few pounds. According to the French health ministry, it has killed at least 500 people from heart-valve damage, but other studies put the death toll nearer to 2,000.” Did the French laboratory Servier know about this misuse yet did not do anything to prevent it or were they simply unaware of the situation? The public opinion was shocked by this scandal, particularly in the light of poor clinical trial practices being revealed. Indeed, a recent study estimates at 80% the number of trials that cannot be reproduced, pointing to opaque processes. Solving Big Pharma’s Trust Issues With Blockchain
Wherever there is a trust issue, there could be blockchain.
Blockchain is a technology that stores the same information in a network of personal computers. As everyone has the same data, it is impossible to hack the system unless one accesses all the computers and changes all the information. This requires a computer power that even Google doesn’t possess. Once you record a document on the blockchain you cannot go back and change it or delete it. Hence, the power of blockchain lies in the fact that it can prove that a unique document was produced at a certain moment in time. Solving Big Pharma’s Trust Issues With Blockchain
How could that help with issues of trust in the pharmaceutical industry? Part of the trust problems are based on the fact that the population believes that health firms dissimulate bad clinical trials results. Only 1 in 10.000 molecules becomes a drug and the whole development process costs between 1.5 and 2 billion dollars to the company. Therefore, it is easily understandable that bad clinical trial results have great financial repercussions. Therefore, some firms do not hesitate to modify the reports to show better results, taking serious risks with the customer’s health.
This is where blockchain technology can help. If the clinical trial results were automatically registered on the blockchain once they were produced, it would become impossible for the pharmaceutical lab to modify the documents if the outcomes were negative. Blockchain technology provides proof of existence for a document with a very specific content. If laboratories make changes in the documents, it is very easy for regulators to spot it. All the documents produced during a clinical trial need to be recorded on the blockchain automatically and directly after they are produced, for this system to work. Indeed, blockchain can only prove the existence of a file with a certain content but it cannot guarantee that the file is authentic. Hence, the only way to ensure that the results are not manipulated from the moment they are produced to the moment they are recorded on the blockchain, is to automatize the storage of the files – leaving no gap of time for people to interfere with the results.
Another problem linked to bad clinical trial practices if the fact that the results reported in scientific publications sometimes differ from the actual results obtained during the trial. Indeed, many types of documents are produced during a clinical trial such as blood tests, medical imagery, surveys, etc. At the end of each phase of the clinical trial, a paper is often published in scientific magazines presenting a summary of the results. As these papers are widely spread, reaching the scientific and medical communities as well as regulators that negotiate drug prices, it is in the pharmaceutical company’s interest to present positive outcomes. In this context, blockchain technology appears to be a great tool for doctors or regulators to make sure that what is mentioned in the publication corresponds to the actual results produced during the clinical trial.
Finally, it is essential to control the identities of the people managing the clinical trial both from the administrative and medical side in order to avoid conflicts of interest. For instance, the statistician interpreting the results should not be involved with the pharmaceutical company running the trial. If we go further with the implementation of blockchain technology, we could imagine that all the people involved should build a digital identity on the blockchain based on irrefutable documents. That way, it could be easier to audit and remove any conflict of interest. Solving Big Pharma’s Trust Issues With Blockchain
Better instead of more marketing?
Part of the reason why the pharmaceutical industry ranks among the last industries in terms of public trust is the abusive use of marketing for OTC drugs that have just been released into the market and whose advert effects are still uncertain. More and more, patients believe that the health sector is more focused on making profit than addressing social and public health issues. But in the light of the elements discussed above, shouldn’t pharmaceutical companies focus more on cleaning their image than constantly trying to sell their products? If firms like Bayer or Servier communicate on the fact that they use technologies like blockchain (without getting too technical, of course) that would allow individuals to check by themselves that the allegations mentioned in a commercial are actually based on scientific and authentic evidence. We often see companies outside of the health care industry trying to improve their image by leveraging the quality of their products but too few are the pharma firms that take the same path. The use of blockchain technology can truly become a quality label that can help Big Pharmas regain the public’s trust. Solving Big Pharma’s Trust Issues With Blockchain
Is the pharma industry ready for more transparency?
Blockchain technology can radically change clinical trial practices. It can bring more transparency and therefore more trust. But as everything in the pharmaceutical world, the decision to implement this technology will be taken upon the benefit/risk balance. Therefore, it is important to also consider the downsides of blockchain from the perspective of a Big Pharma.
A 2016 Edelman study shows that 85% of the people consider quality and safety as their priority when it comes to health care. The study also reports that the sector is running short of trust-building behaviours such as transparency. These two facts are inextricably linked to the respect of clinical trial’s good practices among other elements.
As discussed above, opaque processes are clearly in the pharmaceutical company’s advantage. The question is to know if the firm would rather keep the bad practices and continue losing public trust or agree to more transparency and therefore improve its image. Solving Big Pharma’s Trust Issues With Blockchain
If the public is particularly sensitive to the image of Big Pharmas it is because health companies are expected to be models in terms of social responsibility. They should put public health on top of their list of priorities instead of profit just as the people often place their well-being and health above financial considerations. This gap between what is expect and what the reality reflects is what creates deception and an erosion of trust.