Innovations in pharmaceutical packaging are simplifying prescriptions for patients
Past the age of eating children’s gummy vitamins, few people enjoy taking a medication. Yet most of us will manage a prescription at some point, and when we do, we want to have minimum fuss and know that what we’re consuming is safe. Packaging has a role to play here, from saving time at the pharmacy to keeping counterfeit drugs away from consumer hands. Here, Dr. Liz Wilks, Asia Pulp and Paper’s Director of Sustainability takes a look at three innovations that have revolutionised the pharmaceutical packaging industry and why they should be common practice around the world.
The classic amber vial is a common sight on pharmacy shelves, but both poses security issues and wastes the time of both consumers and pharmacists. Pills need to be individually counted into the bottles by pharmacists, which cannot be rushed without posing risks to accuracy, taking up valuable time for patient and professional alike. Tampering is also difficult to detect with these bottles because of their simple screw top, as are a few missing pills if someone isn’t counting them everyday.
In contrast, blister packaging, also called “unit of use” or “compliance packaging”, takes out the extra step of counting pills at the pharmacy and offers a way to immediately detect tampering or missing doses. This type of storage keeps prescription pills in individual pre-prepared pockets, usually on a sheet. When someone needs to take a pill, they simply pull a sheet out of its cardboard box and push a pill out of its hole. They’re easy to count, and if a pocket is punctured, it’s noticeable to the naked eye.
Using pre-filled cartons makes storage easier as well. Blister packs seal the medicine away from the outside world, including potentially damaging factors like humidity, cross-contamination and, in some cases, sunlight. Because the sheets of pills are bundled inside an external cardboard box, they are easily stacked flat to save space on shelves and when shipping. Blister packaging is common globally for non-prescription medications, like ibuprofen, but key markets – including North America – are still causing headaches for pharmacies and customers by relying heavily on the “vial” system for prescriptions.
To an untrained eye, pharmaceutical labels look standard, barring, perhaps, the font and colours that mark out a brand. Yet the crucial information, such as dosage, ingredients and consumption instructions may vary, not only from country to country but also by pharmacy. With medicines being mass-produced and shared across the world, it’s more important than ever to standardise the pharmaceutical labelling system that allows someone from Birmingham, UK and Birmingham, Alabama to immediately see the information they need no matter the country or shop.
Another issue with labelling is that over-complicated instructions lead to mis-dosage or missed doses, which can be catastrophic for patients. Making consumption guidance and warnings clear, and displayed in a standardised way across medications, can cut down on the amount of consumer confusion when handling medication. For example, over four-fifths of parents in the US make measurement errors when spooning out their child’s medication. Creating one standard to display these critical details will help consumers from worried parents to forgetful pensioners.
“Track and trace” security measures
For better or worse, security concerns are driving innovations in pharmaceutical packaging. Containers need to do more than just keep a medication safe from factors like sunlight or moisture – they need to clearly signal that a medicine is safe. Some estimates report that between 10% and 30% of all pharmaceutical drugs globally are counterfeit.
‘Track and Trace’ is one way packaging can help the pharmaceutical industry crack down on counterfeiting. This system provides an individual ID to every product, to be scanned at every movement from the manufacturing line to the delivery truck, so that it can be tracked throughout the supply chain. This helps certify legitimate drugs and weed out dangerous medicines, ultimately keeping counterfeit products off pharmacy shelves.
Pharmaceutical packaging is constantly being pushed to meet the rapidly evolving needs of a global industry. Labelling and containers have a role to play in keeping consumers safe when handling drugs, from preventing counterfeiting to ensuring proper labelling at a pharmacy to making sure medicines are taken correctly. Blister packs, standardised labelling and track and trace are making the process of taking medicines easier and safer for consumers.
Already, packaging experts are working on new innovations to address issues like tampering, single dosage liquid medicines and more. For anyone regularly taking a medication, it’s worth keeping an eye on the developments on the horizon.