Designing a better blister pack

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A blister pack is one of the simplest forms of pharma packaging available on the market, and a paradigm that’s familiar to most consumers that have ever required a prescription or OTC treatment in pill, capsule, or tablet form.

The basic form of the blister pack is composed of two specific layers, the forming film and the lidding. The forming film is molded to adapt to the shape of the individual medication items and is usually composed of a harder material, such as some form of transparent plastic, creating the “blisters” that give this form of packaging its name. The lidding is a flat sheet applied to the back of the forming layer with the medication nestled inside. Aluminum foil is the dominant material used by pharmaceutical companies, as it’s easy to sterilize and breaks with little pressure, ensuring quick and simple access.

In Europe, 80% of solid drugs are sold in blister packs while in the USA, the total comes to about 20%, though the number is increasing steadily. The question is this: How do you improve upon such a simple, efficient, and accepted packaging paradigm?

Well, the paradigm may not change all that much, but there are a number of ways that companies are innovating within the scope of simple blister pack parameters.

MWV, for example, has released the Shellpak for the pharmaceutical industry. The idea behind the Shellpak is not to reinvent the wheel or improve the blister pack as such, but to offer better housing for packs that add value to the consumer experience. First and foremost, the blister strips are not simply dropped into a box with three or four siblings. Each strip is housed in a thin plastic box out of which the blister strip is pulled. This makes it easier to use, more difficult to lose strips, and generally less messy when compared with strips loaded into boxes. Further, each strip can be printed with schedule cues for the consumer that facilitate keeping on top of doses, a clear visual cue generally lacking in most blister strips on the market. Next, the entire packaging solution is recyclable, and the consumer doesn’t need to fiddle about with boxes, bottles, and separate items. Lastly, as the units come pre-filled, pharmacists can simply pick up the treatment pack and dispense it, thereby eliminating the need for bulky bottles that lead to sorting and counting. The Shellpak concept, therefore, improves upon the simple blister pack idea by addressing not the technical creation of the blister strip but by making everything around it better.

Some companies have decided to move from standard blister materials to others that may be more attractive or, more environmentally sensible, or simply better suited to the task. Rather than use PVC for the forming layer, we’re seeing a few companies moving toward PET as the material’s clarity is unparallelled, making contained products more attractive and brighter when withdrawn from their outer packaging. Other firms are trying to incorporate layers onto PVC to combat the traditional deficiencies of the material with regard to oxygen and moisture barrier properties. Still others prefer the cleanliness of PP as a first choice. The list of possibilities are endless as technology develops and our needs as a culture evolve to consider not just the bottom line but also the needs of individual consumers and the planet as a whole.

Another amazing development is the use of the so-called “smart blister” concept, where strips are capable of monitoring when a consumer takes a pill out of its packaging. Qolpac has created a smart solution that integrates an ultra-low-power processor and radio into a thin plastic foil that could replace the standard backing foil of a blister package. To do so, the firm joined the Holst Centre’s open-innovation R&D facilities that are specialized in developing generic technologies for wireless autonomous sensor technologies and flexible electronics. Hence, smart blister packs can now offer the capability to communicate with a smartphone and give the patient an alert only when he has missed a dose.

Over the last decade we’ve seen the use of responsive inks, especially on vaccines and antibiotics that indicate how long the package has been on the shelf, its level of humidity, or what types of sterilization it has gone through. Others can detect the presence of pathogens and specific genetic modification markers. Still others offer information on tampering to safeguard consumers’ health. All of these concepts are either being used now or being considered for use with blister packs as we see a number of firms spearheading better ways to ensure patient compliance and safety. We’ve also seen the rise of talking packaging, such as Envision America’s ScripTalk system, that places an RFID tag behind the label of pharmaceutical packaging, permitting the blind to use a reader that will speak the name of the patient, type of medication, dosage, and the timing of the doses. The concept is perfect for integration with blister packs.

The course of blister packs in the future will encompass more innovation of this sort. It is patently clear that advances in all scientific fields are contributing to making the familiar and trustworthy blister pack more useful, more efficient, and more interactive than it is now.