Humanising healthcare packaging

Medicinal packaging design could make the patient experience more inclusive.

Brand Packaging
6 June 2017

Medicinal packaging design could make the patient experience more inclusive, enabling brands to better communicate their product and purpose.

Written by Thom Newton, CEO & Managing Partner for Brand Packaging

The pharmaceutical and healthcare industry is seeing profound change. The paradigm has shifted and continues to shift. Individuals are all more adept at researching conditions, diagnosing symptoms and managing their own lifestyles without early intervention from healthcare professionals. Consumers are now taking a much more active role in our own healthcare journeys. Of course, this comes with challenges and the risk of an insufficiently informed course of action that could be ill-advised. There is no doubt that the way people mange their own health and wellbeing has changed. This creates an expectation in the relationship that we have with the companies with which we engage when we do seek support and treatment.

This situation presents both challenges and opportunity for the industry. As such, packaging becomes an interesting area for analysis.

Packaging can alienate users

Medical product packaging is a key point of interaction between patients, practitioners and healthcare companies. Historically, packaging has largely been led by regulatory guidelines, with what seems like little consideration for the patient, carer or practitioner’s needs. In many cases, companies have been alienating the very people they are trying to help.

Unfortunately there is an even more serious consequence of this approach than alienating their customer base: 75% of patients do not take their medication as directed. In the US poor medical adherence costs nearly $300bn a year (Source: American Heart Association) in additional doctors visits, emergency visits and hospitalisation. This is clear proof that when it comes to the consequences of poor design and communication, the industry can’t afford to keep missing the mark.

People now expect product and packaging design to be user friendly (especially with commercial over the counter brands), so it’s more important than ever that medical packaging keeps pace. In the medical field, where people are also at their most vulnerable and in need of support, this is also a key opportunity for both the rational and emotional needs to be met. Packaging is often the primary interface that individuals have with an organisation, and this is especially true when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry.

Creating a Connection

Even when packs are more easily navigable, their clinical look can be off-putting or daunting, creating a critical disconnect between the company/brand and the patient. One would argue that beyond the commercial dynamic, pharmaceutical companies have a duty of care to create a supportive connection with their audience. This issue is even more complicated for the huge number of individuals who have to understand and medicate several different drugs or treatments. A patient or carer with limited literacy skills and multiple medications will face a stressful daily challenge. The majority of existing medical product packaging doesn’t account for the 1 in 5 people globally that have little to no basic reading skills (UNESCO Institute for Statistics). With an ageing population and an ever-increasing number of complex treatments, companies have an ethical responsibility to ensure product sign-posting is straightforward.

But beyond the patient, this design issue has a direct impact on the nurses and pharmacists who deal with the prescribing of medicines. More than 5% of hospital patients experience problems (Source: Patient Safety Network) as a result of a prescribing, dispensing or administration error, leading to wastage of £300 million (Source: Only Order What You Need) worth of NHS prescribed medicines wasted each year in the UK.

So what is the answer, or at least the prescribed course of treatment for the use of design?

Increasing Product Clarity

Pharmaceutical companies need to improve the clarity of product information, increase pack and leaflet navigation and use design to ensure that product variants are defined quickly and easily. If implemented successfully, the patient experience becomes more inclusive and human, enabling companies to better communicate their product and purpose. This will not only improve consumer understanding of the product, but will also leverage brand difference at the point of interaction. The audience will have a clearer understanding of the product and better awareness of the benefit and support being provided by the company behind it.

Colours and iconography must play a clearer role in identifying medicines and clarifying dosage in order to overcome miscommunication problems through language or literacy. If done successfully, the patient experience becomes more inclusive and human, enabling companies to better communicate their product and brand values. The audience will have more brand understanding and awareness. The best design will be that which also alleviates nurses and pharmacists’ time hunting for the right product, and allows them to get back to what’s most important; time with the patient.

Above all, it will have a more widespread effect. The real test of well-designed packaging is whether it helps minimise incorrect usage and problems in prescription. It’s now the challenge for the whole industry to humanise pharma through design.

There are huge challenges to be faced by society in the provision and management of healthcare. For the industry this could be one for which the solution is more within easy reach.

This article was first published in Brand Packaging.