NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are making headlines. Auction house giant Christie’s sold its first virtual “digital-only artwork” for just under $70 million in March, indicative of a growing trend, almost frenzy, among investors.1 Surprisingly, NFTs aren’t just a passing pop-culture phenomenon; the technology has practical applications too.
The pharma world is rapidly evolving as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which facilitated new ways of providing healthcare rooted in socially distanced solutions. According to a survey by Accenture on the pandemic’s impact on HCP behaviors, more HCPs are practicing virtually and 43% of HCPs predict the rise of purely virtual doctors influencing the treatment decisions for their patients.2 In a newly digitized, yet traditionally regulated industry, checks and balances will need to evolve to address emerging obstacles including counterfeit and fraud.
NFTs as Transactional Tools
So, what are NFTs, exactly? NFTs can be thought of as a signature for digital assets, which rely on blockchain technology to prove authenticity through a receipt system, or ledger. Instead of this ledger being stored in one place on one computer, it can be accessed across many computers by anyone that has an internet connection. By confirming authenticity, NFTs establish ownership of one-of-a-kind online assets which can range from a simple pixilated image to a complex set of data, making it impossible to duplicate without permission. To clarify, this means that a set of data can be imitated, but the original is always clearly identifiable. Identifying where data comes from and verifying its validity is a key pillar of the industry today, making it likely that it will continue to be a major topic of interest going forward.
Contrary to the wide draw of NFTs as investments, the applications of NFTs in healthcare and pharma marketing are not meant to inherently generate profit. Instead, NFTs would serve as a solution for verification of digitized health services, authentication of credentials and data, and protection of intellectual property. At its most basic level, this technology can help shorten the healthcare journey and eliminate human error. At its most involved, it can improve transparency in the space for HCPs and consumers alike.
Verification of Offers and Services
Telemedicine and prescription delivery services are on the rise, and NFTs can be valuable in verifying these services between virtual and physical transactions. For example, “tokenized” prescription orders and OTC purchases can be definitively linked back to their initial writing and manufacture respectively, guaranteeing quality until the orders reach the consumer. In this scenario, the NFT would be associated with the physical product and tracked online, including information about recalls, replacements, and expiration dates. Though this seems like old news on the surface, the distinguishing factor here is that the blockchain technology eliminates the possibility of tampering with the NFT as a unique identifier.
Similarly, coupon redemptions that use NFTs can be traced back to their creation by the issuing party. As a result, tracking these offer redemptions at a 1:1 level becomes instantly more accurate and avoids sacrificing the integrity of the coupons themselves. This not only minimizes the risk of counterfeit, but also ensures a more transparent, traceable supply chain.
Authentication of Credentials and Data
The applications of NFTs extends beyond tracking products to verifying HCP credentials and patient records. With HCP credentials, NFTs can be used to validate educational backgrounds, from institutional degrees and certifications to continued medical education credits (CMEs). When issued by the organization directly, these credentials are unsusceptible to manipulation, maintaining their integrity independent of any physical records. This will minimize the possibility of fraudulent practitioners and improve patient safety at all levels of the healthcare journey.
Furthermore, patient records may also be verifiable by NFTs, marking one original set of patient data as authentic, and potentially allowing the patient to own that data set themselves. As owners of that data, patients could grant third-party access to use their records across healthcare offices, pharmacies, and other applicable institutions. This would ultimately minimize human error in between office transfers, improving patient treatment efficiencies. It would also minimize transfer time, speeding up the treatment journey in the process.
Protecting Intellectual Property
In pharma marketing, NFTs can protect intellectual property similar to how they can protect patient data. For marketers that develop unique solutions, assets and materials can be tokenized and subject to transfer of ownership as needed. In the same vein, custom programs and algorithms can be tokenized to prevent copying and manipulation.
Online recruitment platforms with multiple data points, such as those that require individual registrations, can even be tokenized, ensuring that the data set is accurate and verifiable across marketing initiatives. In addition to improving data security, this application of NFTs to marketing could also increase the value of unique solutions among competitors in the space.
However, two major caveats can prevent the widespread use of NFTs in the healthcare industry. The first is that both NFT and blockchain technologies require disproportionately large amounts of energy to execute minor transactions.3 For this reason, this technology may not be a commercially available solution in the near future without alternative sources of energy.
The second caveat is that, like all emerging solutions, NFTs are subject to potential legal issues. For example, during the stock market fluctuations in January, multiple platforms paused investors’ ability to trade the stock GameStop (GME). A similar conflict surrounded the meme cryptocurrency Dogecoin ($DOGE), where the popular app Robinhood prevented investors from trading it, citing volatile market conditions.4 Both events sharply signaled necessity for regulation reform to reflect newly emerging online commodities and behaviors, indicating that NFT applications to healthcare and pharma marketing, an already highly regulated space, might also be subject to similar regulation in the future.
Whether NFTs are the next big thing in healthcare and pharma or continue to thrive as collectible CryptoPunks, one thing is for sure, digitization isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
1. “JPEG File Sells for $69 Million, as ‘NFT Mania’ Gathers Pace,” New York Times, March, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/11/arts/design/nft-auction-christies-beeple.html.
2. “Reinventing Relevance,” Accenture Healthcare Provider Survey, May 2020. https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-130/Accenture-HCP-Survey-v4.pdf#zoom=40.
3. “Digital NFT Art is Booking- But at What Cost?,” TIME, March 2021.
4. “Robinhood Blocks Cryptocurrency Trading, Blames ‘Extraordinary Market Conditions,” Newsweek, January, 2021. https://www.newsweek.com/robinhood-restricts-cryptocurrency-trading-market-conditions-1565381.