The packaging industry is continually evolving, with new methodologies being devised on a regular basis. In the pharmaceutical industry, in particular, the impact of advanced technologies is changing the way drug packaging is manufactured.
With plenty of exciting innovations in the pipeline, a new era of drug packaging looks set to dawn in the UK.
How packaging is used
Typically, packaging is used to store, transport and dispense medication. However, standard drug packaging may need to be modified in order to meet changing demands. Depending on how Brexit is resolved, the transportation of medicines across the border could take significantly longer, for example.
If transport times are increased, packaging may need to be altered to increase the shelf-life of some medications. Similarly, drugs will be stored for longer, so packaging will need to be able to protect and preserve medications effectively.
Of course, not all transportation requires drugs to be shipped in customer-ready packaging. When medication is transported through the supply chain, primary packaging, drums, lined boxes and bulk containers may be used.
Before the product reaches the end-user, however, medications must be packaged ready for patient use. As well as enclosing the relevant information with the medication, the packaging itself plays an integral role in patient compliance and accurate dosage.
With increasingly flexible packaging options, manufacturers are using a variety of methods to increase compliance and minimise the risk of dosing errors. As a result, pharmaceutical packaging is playing a key role in the regulation, safety and effectiveness of the medical industry as a whole.
Blister packs, syringes and bottles and caps are, arguably, the most popular forms of pharmaceutical packaging. Whilst glass bottles are still used to store and transport some medications, plastic containers and bottles are increasingly popular due to their enhanced durability.
In Europe and the UK, blister packs are the most common form of packaging for solid medications. Whilst the properties of thermoformed plastic protect the medication for long periods of time, the ability to print on the plastic or aluminium lidding seal means that patient instructions can be clearly issued.
For liquid medication, glass and plastic bottles are most commonly used. Due to enhanced barrier properties, glass bottles are still routinely used to deliver liquid medicines to end users, although plastic options are adding diversity.
With the option to use varying hues, plastic and glass bottles can be used to prevent ultraviolet light affecting or degrading the medication. This increases the lifespan of products, as well as increasing patient safety and product consistency.
In some instances, drugs need to be shipped in temperature or climate-controlled environments. For manufacturers, the variations in delivery can pose a problem. When drugs are shipped directly to an end-user, for example, they may be delivered via standard services which cannot be temperature controlled. With innovative packaging, such as insulated envelopes or gel packs, companies can minimise supply costs and rely on standard shipping techniques, as opposed to more costly specialist services.
Due to the danger of counterfeit drugs, it’s essential that pharmaceutical packaging provides another layer of reassurance and security to end-users. Whilst custom seals and holograms are routinely used to prove authenticity, packaging counterfeiters are using increasingly sophisticated methods to replicate them.
However, the introduction of digital watermarks and digital mass serialisation could play a significant role in stopping counterfeit drugs reaching the market. Serialisation codes can be checked against manufacturer databases to verify their authenticity, whilst users will be able to scan packaging for a digital watermark using devices, such as smartphones and tablets.
Prescription labels vary depending on the end-user. Generally, medication will require two different labels; one for the healthcare practitioner prescribing or dispensing the medication and one for the patient.
Crucial to patient safety and adherence, these prescription labels are essential and must accompany the majority of medicines. Whilst this information has always been delivered in hardcopy format, digital scanning will ensure patients are able to access this information online, from any location.
If a package label is lost by a patient, for example, they can simply access the information they need by scanning the packaging. With the ability to verify information easily, this should help to improve adherence amongst patients and minimise dosing errors.
Tightly regulated, the production of pharma packaging must be carried out in sterile environments. Furthermore, regular quality control protocols must be enforced to ensure that packaging meets the relevant requirements and will protect medications from degradation.
With an emphasis on increasing environmentally-friendly production methods, many manufacturers are focusing on finding alternatives to non-reusable plastics. In addition, the ability to recycle and reuse polyethene terephthalate (PET) is affecting packaging production in a dramatic way. Providing the benefits associated with plastic package, with minimal plastic waste entering the environment, PET will become increasingly common across the packaging industry.
Pharma packaging must be child-resistant and tamper-proof to minimise the risk of unnecessary harm occurring. Traditionally, safety caps have been used on bottles to prevent children from accessing the contents.
However, concerns have been raised about the effect child-resistant packaging could have on patient adherence. Often, elderly people or patients with disabilities have difficulty opening medications which are delivered in child-resistant packaging. This can prevent patients from accessing the medication they need and clearly contributes to adherence issues.
As in many areas of pharma packaging, technology can be used to increase child-resistance and tamper-proof features, whilst still ensuring patients can access their medications easily.
Smart packaging can be used to limit access to drugs, for example, by alerting the patient each time the packaging is opened and/or requiring a code to be input before the packaging will open. In addition, a fingerprint scan or facial recognition scan to be conducted to facilitate access to medicines.
With the ability to monitor patient adherence and provide real-time dosage reminders, as well as increasing safety, smart packaging is likely to revolutionise the packaging industry in the not to distant future.