Good Shepherd Pharmacy, a Memphis-based nonprofit pharmacy, is partnering with FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis and Lipscomb University in Nashville to develop software for a national blockchain network that connects with other nonprofit pharmacies to facilitate the sharing of unused medication.
Additionally, Good Shepherd announced Tuesday that it has received a $20,000 donation from QSource to help fund the blockchain infrastructure. Good Shepherd is one of five organizations to receive a grant from the Memphis-based nonprofit, which is dedicated to improved healthcare and information technology consultancy.
“This blockchain infrastructure has the potential to fundamentally change the pharmacy industry across the board,” said Dr. Phil Baker, pharmacist and founder of Good Shepherd Pharmacy, in a statement.
“Beyond that, it has significant implications for those most in need right here in Memphis. It will enable us to save lives by providing medication to those who are otherwise unable to afford it. We are so proud that Qsource recognizes and supports our mission.”
Through the blockchain interface, patients will use two applications, RemediChain, which allows patients to donate unused oral chemotherapy medication, and SPRIPRIDE, which coordinates the delivery of the drugs to other patients.
“The clarity in what they do and the way they have been able to do it as a nonprofit means that more people can get medication that they couldn’t otherwise afford,” said Cody Behles, assistant director of innovation and research at FedEx Institute of Technology, which is working with Good Shepherd as a facilitator for outside partnerships.
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“You have to pick between eating and your pills. You combine that with the fact that it ties in with two of the biggest industries in Memphis — healthcare and logistics — to build this really powerful tool," Behles said.
Blockchain is an emerging technology that has wide applications in the flow of goods. Each block is linked using cryptography. Each contains an algorithm with information from the previous block, along with a timestamp and transaction data. They are resistant to change, and are managed on a peer-to-peer network, or ledger.
Practical applications of blockchain technology began in 2014 with the advent of the digital currency Bitcoin. In regards to Bitcoin, blockchains essentially act as a central bank, managing the value and flow of currency.
Blockchain technology has the potential for use throughout the broader economy, particularly in the logistics and automotive industries, which makes Memphis a natural launching pad for this burgeoning technology.
“It sets the stage to build a platform where we can truly be transparent,” said Baker, who was introduced to the potential of blockchain technology through Lipscomb’s College of Pharmacy. The college has been working with blockchain technology as a method to deal with drug supply management since 2015. They work with outside app developers and have imparted their experiences to Good Shepherd.
“In terms of the FDA and the DEA on these medications, the chain of custody stops when they reach the first pharmacy. They don’t track chain of custody to patients. So, from a chain of custody perspective, these meds are off the grid. Blockchain gives us a way to re-establish chain of custody,” Baker added.
Tracking medications through blockchain technology also gives quality assurances for consumers, who generally regard the idea of recycled medications negatively. All donations to Good Shepherd are from unopened, unused prescriptions ensuring their safety. Baker also worked with Senator Brian Kelsey in the Tennessee legislature to have laws changed in 2018, whereby any individual in the country is allowed to donate medication to any participating repository in the state.
Two bins with unused medication donated prior to legal changes that allow repurposing of unopened prescriptions. These drugs had to be destroyed, but future medication will not. (Submitted)
“The way ledgers work, you can see every transaction. Nobody knows because each count is tied to a unique ID, a primary key that nobody else would know. I can see every single transaction that occurred along the way,” said Baker.
In its first year of working with blockchain technology, Baker focused efforts on acquiring chemotherapy drugs as a way to establish the business. He is also looking to partner with area oncology clinics as a way to grow the pharmacy's reach. Good Shepherd Pharmacy, which is located at 1256 Union Avenue, serves about 1,000 clients a month with six full-time employees.
“I was trying to figure out how do I get started and find the twenty percent of the work that gets me 80 percent of the result. And the answer to that question was oral chemotherapies. They are the most expensive meds; they are the most wasted meds. If all we did was chemotherapy, I realized we would have a program that would help a lot of people and be a huge success,” Baker added.
At a national level, around 20 percent of filled prescriptions are thrown away. In Tennessee, over $10 million worth of perfectly good prescription medication gets flushed down the toilet every year, according to Baker. A 30-day supply of oral chemotherapy typically costs between $30,000 and $45,000.
“Because of the way the industry is set up, with the pharmacies and manufacturers and the regulatory environment associated with that it, make it very difficult for people to get access to what they need," said Behles, who envisions doctors using blockchain technology to access medicines directly through pharmaceutical companies and bypassing the need to seek out a pharmacist.
Good Shepherd has been working with the FedEx Institute of Technology to partner with like-minded companies, like Dayamed, a Toronto-based company that is developing a device and platform that reminds elderly patients to take their pills at the right time each day.
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“We helped make that connection for them. Good Shepherd and RemediChain is the pharmacy. Dayamed is the delivery platform, Uberizing pill delivery, if you will,” said Behles. Memphis-based Dayamed is one of the first members of the The FedEx Institute of Technology’s Communitech Research Park. Its partnership with Good Shepherd will kick off in 2019.
“Our minimal viable product is our website. What we want to build ultimately would be an app where it streamlines that donation process and gets all the required info by that state’s law, and gets the signature — creates a digital receipt for that — and then we can track through the rest of the system. That’s the bigger project,” added Baker.