Blockchain technology in the pharmaceutical industry: a systematic review – PMC

Table of Contents


In recent years, the proliferation of research, projects, and discussions of blockchain technology has attracted the attention of both researchers and practitioners. Blockchain technology is a distributed ledger that enables the efficient, permanent, and verifiable recording of transactions. It is also a decentralized database that can be used to manage an ever-growing list of records called nodes (Soundarya, Pandey & Dhanalakshmi 2018). One of the advantages of blockchain technology is the inability to change any contracts and transactions that are added to the ledger. Blockchain technology can be used in any industry that requires procedures to be verified and recorded, as well as industries in which sensitive data are managed, including healthcare, medical research, military, banking, finance, and insurance (Bera et al., 2020; Bhardwaj et al., 2020; Kumar et al., 2021).

Figure 1 shows the percentage distribution of research articles on blockchain that have been published in the healthcare industry. As the figure indicates, the number of articles published in this area has increased rapidly year on year. Also, Fig. 2 shows the advantages associated with applying blockchain technologies, as well as the related challenges.

The traditional pharmaceutical supply chain faces a range of challenges, including lack of transparency, difficulty tracking products, lack of trust, and the shipment of expired products (Sinclair, Shahriar & Zhang, 2019). Nevertheless, the pharmaceutical industry must maintain reliable information about the origins of raw materials through drug production and distribution (Plotnikov & Kuznetsova, 2018; Huang, Wu & Long, 2018; Haq & Muselemu, 2018; Garankina et al., 2018).

Counterfeit drugs are produced outside the legitimate pharmaceutical manufacturing system and, therefore, are fraudulent. Given that counterfeit drugs resemble the original drugs, they can be challenging to detect. In most cases, they are designed to appear identical to the original product and may not cause an obvious or harmful reaction. However, they often fail to treat the disease or ailment for which they were designed in an effective way, or they may contain harmful and sometimes toxic ingredients. Pharmaceutical drugs are also used in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. In recent years, counterfeit drug production has been a growing industry, and counterfeit drugs result in an estimated 100,000 to 1,000,000 deaths annually (Jamil et al., 2019; Anonymous, 2018). Counterfeit drugs affect the reputations and revenues of legitimate drug manufacturers, but the prevention of counterfeits from entering the market is also urgently needed to safeguard patients.

Given the properties of blockchain technology, particularly the way it enables decentralization, transparency, trust, anonymity, and stability, the use of blockchain technology in the pharmaceutical industry has been identified as a viable way to protect against counterfeit drug distribution. Blockchains can be used to trace the origin of pharmaceuticals, the transport of drugs, and the procurement of raw materials. Blockchain technology also reduces the number of intermediaries involved in the pharmaceutical process, thereby reducing costs and improving safety (Huang, Wu & Long, 2018).

In this paper, we present a systematic literature review (SLR) focusing on the use of blockchain technology in the pharmaceutical industry, including in applications such as tracking and tracing, counterfeit prevention, distribution, and data security. The review includes 38 articles published between 2016 and 2021. The most recent literature review of blockchain technology applications in the pharmaceutical industry was a meta-analysis of 15 articles, which identified factors influencing the successful use of the technology (Fernando, 2019; Fernando et al., 2018). However, the study was limited and did not provide an in-depth analysis of the limitations and challenges of blockchain adoption, nor did it discuss future research directions.

Therefore, this SLR provides an overview of recent research to facilitate an understanding of blockchain technology applications in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as the future of blockchains in this area. Given the unique benefits of blockchains in promoting traceability, transparency, and trust among pharmaceutical stakeholders, it is essential for academics, practitioners, and the healthcare industry as a whole to understand the technology.

In this SLR, we also examine the blockchain frameworks that have been developed in the pharmaceutical industry. In particular, we discuss white papers and vision papers that have covered the use of blockchain in the pharmaceutical industry. We also identify the limitations associated with blockchain research in the pharmaceutical industry. The challenges and solutions of blockchains applications in complex environments (e.g., big data) are also discussed.

This SLR of blockchain technology in the pharmaceutical industry addresses the following questions:

This study has the following highlights:

This paper is organized as follows: ‘Related Work’ summarizes related work; ‘Blockchain Technology’ describes the basics of blockchain technology; ‘Review Methodology’ presents the SLR’s methodology; ‘Results’ describes the SLR’s results; ‘Discussion’ discusses the results; and ‘Conclusions’ presents concluding remarks.

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