By David Gray and Tim Brooks
Bitcoin, Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, Ethereum etc.
Most of us have heard of the ‘new phenomena’ promising unimaginable riches to early stage investors and disruption to traditional business models on a scale never seen before.
Is it just hype or the beginning of the end for traditional approaches to retail, banking, healthcare, supply chain etc.?
A sliver of cynicism is useful at this point. We’re old enough to remember the dot com crash when we had offers of sweat equity in exchange for free consultancy from eager young people who scoffed when you asked to see their business plan. Sadly, Jeff Bezos never approached us, or it might have been a very different story. But, we must not be luddites. This is happening.
So, what is Blockchain?
We’re not qualified to give the definitive answer, but…
‘It’s a distributed and immutable (write once and read only) record of digital events that is shared peer to peer between different parties (networked database systems)’. It is the levels of data integrity that is fueling the potential. The value in finance seems obvious, but it is also really interesting in healthcare where personal, exploitable data and high levels of regulation abound.
The current issue is that the layers of utility that might be offered above this core functionality is, to date, largely unproven and snake oil sales-persons are everywhere! We are certain that, like the development of the internet, things will come… and go… before we find a modus operandi on which to build. It’s likely that, even then, 2nd and 3rd generation developments will disrupt this along the way just as mobile has with digital. One thing is for certain, it is not a panacea for any struggling industry, business or model. Nothing is ever so neat as to ‘save the day.’
There are lots of areas for exploration, but two immediately interest us in healthcare.
1. Borderless and cross-border supply chains of medicines/regulated substances.
2. Personal healthcare information (currently captured and shared with limited security).
A recent example we saw, however, clarified the potential of the first point and demonstrated how this could quickly impact on the healthcare sector.
1. Cannabis, IBM and government of British Colombia
IBM has approached the government of British Columbia to help them integrate blockchain technology into Canada’s soon to be legalized cannabis trade.
According to an article published by WARC IBM writes “Blockchain is an ideal mechanism in which BC can transparently capture the history of cannabis through the entire supply chain, ultimately ensuring consumer safety while exerting regulatory control – from seed to sale.”
The article goes on to explain that “the ledger is immutable, with cryptography ensuring that the transactions (blocks) once entered into the ledger (chained) can never be altered.” This also delivers transparency, as all shared ledgers across the network hold all transactions from all parties.
For the government, this ensures control and the potential to “eliminate black market sales completely.” For producers, the technology can assist with real time inventory management, supply and demand projections and consumption trends and data analytics capabilities.
We can all see where that might take us with pharmaceutical supply chain, distribution and business models. It is a potential ‘solution’ to one of the big concerns for regulators – the borderless healthcare transaction – as it can track the transaction with total integrity and can be matched to the local regulatory and safety needs throughout. We are also sure it will challenge and worry regulators, especially in Europe, where they are not famed as innovators!
2. Personal data, empowerment and consumer healthcare/wellness?
Of more interest to us, who live in a world of people and insight versus global supply strategy, is the potential of Blockchain to enable us to share highly personal data with security and protection. Ultimately, and this is a breakthrough in trust and empowerment, there is no reason why the patient cannot be part of this chain versus a faceless healthcare provider ‘holding’ data on our behalf and occasionally losing it! Currently there are no established protocols for this. We don’t know, but we imagine there is a feeding frenzy of suppliers etc. trying to get into this market. So, when, how and if it becomes truly scalable is beyond us!
The question we ask, and would appreciate feedback and answers on, is whether, in the medium term, this is where the potential for consumer healthcare businesses/brands lies? This is part of a broader question we repeatedly ask about how we can use personal healthcare data in the self-med space to improve lives and wellness without being uncomfortably beholden to a Facebook or Google?
We all see the value of patient-data for ‘serious’ conditions and see the value of securely managing it in a way Blockchain potentially offers. But this must also be relevant for people’s everyday health, happiness and wellness data. Currently, people are sharing data with an openness that is potentially foolish with unforeseen consequences. They are, despite inadequate integration attempts by Google and Apple, storing any data they have – from wearables & other devices, a few apps on sleep or allergies and occasionally implants & data capture that are linked to more serious medical conditions - in an ad hoc way.
It seems that there is a wellness opportunity here. For someone to build an integrated store of personal wellness/health information – ignoring the artificial boundaries of health system/Rx and self-medication/wellness – that is ‘owned’ by and empowers people to make the data actionable. People are already considering this in the ‘app’ space, but what Blockchain does very successfully is to theoretically enable 2 things: protection – controlled by the individual as they are central to the network - and integration of discrete data sets. The challenge for brands will be that they aren’t best placed to do the integration part which means they will increasingly need to engage with the consumer on their terms, in their world.
This holistic, data-led world is creating a fundamental engagement problem for brands and portfolio owners. How many relationships does the consumer need or want with health and wellness brands? An app for brand x in allergy or brand y for your skin condition is not irrelevant, but will only work for the consumer if it is simple and integrated into a broader solution. A one (or few) stop shop versus 25 points of data; 25 apps or 25 daily interactions in the self-med space? many of these problems are not serious enough to demand this effort, but people care enough to want relevant, specific benefits. What they will increasingly shun is the complexity of multiple interactions. Life is too short! (FYI, we are planning to share some more detailed insight on this soon)
So, we see the challenge for brands is the same as ever, but needing to work in a new context. These new technologies will build new ‘channels’ – either for communication or commercial interaction with customers and consumers. Some might fundamentally change the business model, while others will simply change the route to market.
Wherever we end up, brands still need to focus on what we call creating meaningful difference. A single-minded focus on driving relevance and distinctiveness. What Blockchain and new technologies do is fundamentally change and increase the challenge & opportunities that brands have to create relevance beyond the product. Brand owners are not usually very good at this. It’s hard.
We try to keep it simple and we would recommend (in thinking brand strategy vs supply) reviewing these new technology-led platforms and 3rd party initiatives through these two basic lenses:
1. It is a potential route to market? Decision – do we want to play here or not? Do we have to play here for strategic reasons? Or most often - let’s test and learn, rapidly on a small scale
2. Is it an engagement/relevance opportunity? These are simply more ‘touchpoints’ and interactions that can unlock insight and potentially drive relevance.
We rarely believe in inhabiting the bleeding edge. Our approach is the basis of fast following and evolving/defending your brand assets in the face of complexity and change. We accept that the speed of change might overtake us, but would argue that these two points will still apply and the pressure will be the speed at which we have to change direction.
But, never forget, your fundamental relevance comes from your ability to solve people’s problems; the jobs they need to do. Blockchain will not impact on large parts of this… immutable data integrity never offered fast effective pain relief for a headache.
So to conclude, BLOCKCHAIN does have the potential to, and probably will, transform healthcare and the role of personal information about our health. Is it anytime soon? Hard to say, but it seems that the disaggregated approach of the industry to solving this means a period of chaos before true value and integration emerges.
It’s going to happen, so watch this space, but perhaps, we recommend, don’t hold your breath.
 ‘Does Blockchain have a place in healthcare?’ Reenita Das on Forbes.com, 8/5/17