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Smart Packaging Technology: Transforming the Pharmaceutical Industry for Everyone

MedLock | January 28, 2022
Revised: May 16, 2022

Medication compliance packaging plays a major role in preserving both the integrity of pharmaceuticals products and the health of patients. Given the proliferation of technological advances within the past several years, new types of packaging have emerged as real game changers for the pharmaceutical industry, the cannabis industry, and packaging manufacturers and suppliers. Let's take a look.

white plastic bottle with intelligent packaging and NFC chip sending data to both patient and healthcare provider
Smart packaging has the power to seamlessly connect patients to healthcare providers.

The Key Functions of Packaging

The two key roles of packaging for any product are: (1) to protect the contents of the package and (2) to communicate information to the consumer. Smart packaging extends these functions by ensuring quality control of products throughout the supply chain. More specifically, smart packaging contains added features - like physical sensors - that serve to monitor the condition of the enclosed product.


Smart packaging can also enhance patients’ wellbeing by improving medication adherence. This includes seamlessly connecting doctors, pharmacists, and other healthcare providers with their patients to ensure medications are being taken as directed. It also helps to provide complete visibility in complex global supply chain resulting in improved efficiencies, decreased likelihood of product degradation, lower criminal activity, and improved patient experience.


Types of Smart Packaging

There are two types of smart packaging: (1) active packaging and (2) intelligent packaging. Both types of smart packaging are efficient ways to ensure quality control of pharmaceutical products throughout the supply chain.


Active Packaging

Active packaging physically protects products from exposure to oxygen and moisture. This is achieved through the inclusion of secondary materials in a packaging system (e.g., sachets and pads that absorb gas and moisture). It can also include the addition of oxygen-absorbing materials directly into a product’s primary packaging. Both are effective ways to ensure pharmaceutical products and medications are transported under optimal conditions as well as preventing product degradation.


Intelligent Packaging

Intelligent packaging is used to monitor, rather than alter, the conditions of the contents of a package and its surrounding environment. Intelligent packaging can, for example, determine whether a product has been exposed to oxygen or to a temperature outside its optimal range.

person holding tablet tracking shipment routes around the world
Intelligent packaging can help track shipments and determine when a package has been tampered with in real time.

It can also determine when a medication cap is first removed, the number of pills in a bottle, when a pill is removed, and when a pill is returned to its bottle. Intelligent packaging can therefore detect when a product has been tampered with. This has significant implications for highly controlled medications, like opiates and opioid agonists like methadone. Intelligent packaging therefore has the potential to strongly contribute to harm reduction associated with controlled substances used in medication assisted treatment or opioid agonist therapy.


Not only can bottle caps use intelligent packaging technology, but so can the bottle itself. Recent developments in intelligent packaging involve the integration of modular smart bottle necks that are attached to bottles after the filling process. These smart necks are customized to fit various bottle sizes and shapes to enhance compatibility with filling and capping machines. Like smart caps, these bottle necks can help with medication adherence and harm reduction efforts by tracking how much of a medication is removed as well as when medication is returned to the bottle. Smart caps and bottles could be the future for liquid methadone prescriptions.


Communication Through Packaging

As discussed, one of the key functions of packaging is to communicate product information to the consumer. Providing additional instructions on packaging illustrates a one-way communicative function of pharmaceutical packaging. While beneficial, can technology allow for advanced two-way communication to enhance compliance packaging and keep physicians and patients connected? Near Field Communication (NFC) technology has indeed made this possible.


Near Field Communication Technology

Simply put, NFC is a type of wireless communication technology often used in smartphones. NFC technology can now be embedded into labels, packaging, products, and other materials to allow for new forms of consumer and patient engagement as well as tracking packages/shipments.

man in lab coat holding tablet with hologram of human skeleton and vitals
NFC technology has the power to change how physician and patient interact.
Improved Medical Treatment

Adding NFC technology to compliance packaging can greatly improve medication adherence. Not only can consumers receive product information by simply tapping an embedded NFC label (or scanning a QR code), but consumers can also tap to indicate when they take a prescribed dose. This information is helpful in preventing accidental double dosing. Again, this has positive implications for harm reduction in the addiction treatment space - especially with methadone assisted treatment.


In addition, the data provided by the packaging and the patient's interactions can be sent to a healthcare provider to assess medication compliance. Physicians can even set dose reminders that can be communicated through notifications sent to an app, mobile device, or landline. There are also new "smart" medical bracelets to further monitor patients and send reminders. Printed electronics can also be added directly to blister packaging to instantly detect when a blister has been accessed.

three diverging arrows with cardboard box packages on wheels going in each direction
NFC technology provides a comprehensive view of the supply chain right up until the package is delivered to the recipient.
Improved Security

Embedded NFC technology also has the power to improve product security by enabling real-time tracking of packages during transport. This technology can relay data regarding current conditions of the packaging like location, temperature, humidity, and damage to the package (e.g., if the package is ripped open, dropped, etc.). NFC can create a more efficient system for monitoring the security of pharmaceutical products during the journey from supplier to pharmacy to consumer.



Smart Packaging Benefits All Stakeholders

Despite the heftier price tag that comes with smart packaging, there are a host of benefits that surpass the cost in the long term. The main reason for this is that smart packaging benefits everyone from pharmaceutical manufacturers to healthcare providers, patients, and even at the level of the supply chain.


Patients and Physicians

Smart packaging allows physicians to monitor their patients’ activities and advise them on the best ways to take their medication. This leads to improved health outcomes and minimizes the risk of overdosing or improper medication use.


Improved safety is not the only benefit for patients. The use of NFC technology and QR codes allows physicians and other healthcare providers to directly supply content to their patients. By simply scanning the QR code on their medication, patients can access additional product information like instructional videos on proper medication use.

a digital hand and a human hand pointing to a digital brain
Smart packaging has the power to remove some of the burden placed on our healthcare system and medical clinics.

Healthcare

Another important factor to note when considering smart packaging is its role in improving overloaded healthcare systems. Providing patients and physicians with new ways to connect outside of a clinical setting lessens the burden on the healthcare system. Patients are also provided with direct support more rapidly, eliminating wait times, and therefore contributing to improved health outcomes.


Pharmaceutical Companies

Pharmaceutical manufacturers also greatly benefit from smart packaging. For example, smart technology integrated into packaging gives the supplier a comprehensive view of the supply chain. This makes it easy for the pharmaceutical companies to safely distribute products and identify instances of criminal behaviour. This could include information indicating when shipments are intercepted, when packages are stolen, and when products are sold on the black market.


Furthermore, smart packaging can help with serialization in that pharmaceutical companies can easily track specific serial numbers after distribution. This makes it much easier to identify missing shipments, ensuring quality control, and tracking intercepted packages.


Are There Any Drawbacks?

Unfortunately, most technological advancements are not without drawbacks or limitations. The key concern for most stakeholders is the cost of smart packaging. Not only does this affect packaging manufacturers, suppliers, and pharmaceutical companies, but it also affects patients. Why is this? Most prescription insurance providers refuse to cover any incremental cost that comes with the use of smart packaging. This in turn has made pharmaceutical manufacturers reluctant to use this technology in packaging for over-the-counter and prescription medications.


Another potential drawback with smart packaging has to do with the transfer of sensitive data. The use of NFC technology involves the use of cloud-based storage for personal medical information. As such, there is the issue of data theft. However, this has perpetuated further collaboration between pharmaceutical companies and cloud-based storage companies to improve the encryption technology used in smart packaging. This is also illustrated in the growing use of telehealth and the switch to paperless storage of medical data.


The Future of Smart Packaging

Smart packaging is an exciting concept with a host of applications and benefits to virtually every stakeholder. This technology benefits the pharmaceutical industry by increasing efficiency, facilitating manufacturing and distribution, reducing shortages, and protecting patient health. Physicians can better monitor medication adherence and patients can experience improved health outcomes.


As the technology advances, it is likely that physical sensors and chips will become even easier and more affordable to integrate into packaging. We truly hope the high cost of smart packaging can be addressed as this is the main barrier to using this type of technology in packaging. When this happens, the benefits of smart packaging technology will become exponentially clearer for everyone.

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