Just because an idea looks simple and logical doesn’t mean it’ll come easily. Regulations, funding, inertia, the notion that it hasn’t been done before — those factors have torpedoed great ideas. But the team at RemediChain was more than up to the task of providing an answer to a problem that begged to be solved.
The team — Phil Baker and Ayilé Arnett (as well as Jide Anyigbo who recently left the organization) — were acutely aware of the situation: A large number of prescribed medications were going unused for various reasons. Once prescribed, they had no monetary value, yet low-income patients who needed them couldn’t get them. The system simply wasn’t set up that way.
It really starts with the Good Shepherd Pharmacy, a nonprofit membership organization for low-income people who are often uninsured. It doesn’t take insurance but rather sells prescriptions at cost with no markup. Baker is CEO of Good Shepherd and its sister company RemediChain, which is a logical extension of Good Shepherd’s mission.
Barker describes the situation: “Good Shepherd is a charity pharmacy and we opened in September of 2015. People started bringing us medicine saying ‘Grandpa was in hospice and he passed away and I have all this medicine and it’s not open. There’s nothing wrong with it and I want to donate it so you can give it away to poor people.’”
But in Tennessee, as in most states, it was illegal. “You couldn’t take prescriptions back to the pharmacy, they couldn’t accept them. So we worked for two years with state legislators to get a bill passed that we could start a reclamation program.” Barker and team then worked with the state’s Department of Health and Board of Pharmacy to nail down how it would work. Finally, last October, they could accept donated chemotherapy meds.
“We can only re-dispense tablets and capsules,” Baker says. “No patches, no inhalers. Tablets and capsules are really the safest of all drugs, not temperature controlled and in their original packaging or blister packaging unopened. They have to be pristine.”
Oral chemotherapies are the most expensive drugs — and the most wasted. “Forty percent of cancer patients die every year. They’re on these drugs when they die and the meds are left in the hands of the families and they have to be literally flushed down the toilet,” Baker says.
But that’s no longer the only recourse.
“What we have now is the first-of-its-kind program where we can accept donated meds from any individual anywhere in the United States. They have to be dispensed to Tennessee residents, but we can accept donations nationally. In 10 months, we’ve gotten $200 million worth of meds.”
Baker is working to make the program nationwide by establishing a network of partners in each state that will work with the laws in each jurisdiction.
And a key element of making the enterprise work is the use of blockchain. Baker says he’s not particularly technical but it seemed that the evolving technology made sense. “You’ve got a high-value physical asset, you’re tracking chain of custody,” he says. “I was invited to the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis to a blockchain group and I gave a presentation. I told them to shoot holes in it, tell me this is a bad idea, because I’m not technical. But they didn’t, they were all along the way saying this is a perfect use case for this.”
By getting into blockchain, Baker’s team has since been invited to work on a pilot program with the FDA. “We transfer high value medications that are temperature controlled from one hospital to another,” he says. “There are systems that track meds from manufacturer to wholesaler to pharmacy, but there are none to track between hospitals even in the same system. We transfer meds between two hospitals using a drone. It’s temperature controlled and all blockchained. We send the drone from one hospital to another, drop it, deliver it, and make the system that tracks all of that so that it’s constantly under custody that we know where it is at all times, temperature, geo-location, all those sorts of things. Really cool.”
Arnett is co-founder of RemediChain and CEO of ScripRide, another project of Good Shepherd. She had been working on issues of getting medications into the hands of low-income patients who have difficulty finding transportation. “ScripRide is an app that helps to manage the transportation efforts of bringing medication from the pharmacy to the community members in Memphis,” she says. “Right now we’re delivering just under 300 packages every 90 days.” Those transactions, of course, are on blockchain.
ScripRide was made possible by a $20,000 grant from Qsource and Arnett and Baker hope it could eventually become something of an Uber for nonprofit volunteers. “It could develop into this huge pool of drivers that have extra time on their hands to be able to participate in the volunteer activities of local organizations.”