For most of us, the blister packs our medicines come in are just temporary barriers to be scratched open with our fingernails or popped open like Chiclets. We usually don’t even pay attention to the tiny, vaguely printed expiration dates tattooed on the silver skin of our aspirin or cough medicine’s packaging; we take for granted that it’s in date.
Yet around the world, billions of people can’t take the expiration dates of their medication for granted. Doing so can be, and often is, fatal. A new concept could put an end to that by encapsulating our medicines in strips that change color as they expire, transforming the packaging of dangerously out-of-date medication into a chromatic warning. But will big pharma bring it to market?
Gautam Goel and Kanupriya Goel are a husband-and-wife doctor/designer team who were inspired to try to tackle the problem of expiring medicines after helping their grandparents clean out their medicine cabinets. "In their frail states, with such limited vision and dexterity, they found it extremely challenging to read the expiration dates printed in these tiny five-point fonts on their medicine strips," the Goels tell Co.Design. And even if they could read the expiration dates, they found it difficult to interpret medical information on a package that was written in English, a language that was not their native tongue.
The Goels realized this was a problem that was a lot bigger than their grandparents’ bathrooms. "Outside of the West, there is little awareness to the concept of a medicine becoming 'expired,'" say the Goels. "We’re not even just talking about the market shelf-life of a medicine strip here. It’s alarming how little the average person understands how quickly a medicine becomes dangerous for consumption."
For example, while it’s common in the West for medicine to be sold by the box, much of the world buys its medicine in strips, just a few pills at a time. Coupled with rampant black market trade in expired medication, the blister packaging pills come in can be separated in such a way that there is no expiration date on them at all. It’s a dangerous problem.
The Goels’ solution is very simple. Instead of simply printing the expiration date on a blister pack of medicine, which can be hard to read or which can wear off, why not coat the foil with a specially treated paper that changes color as it ages? That way, you could have medical packaging that starts out, say, blue, but turns red when it expires, or gets crossed out with a big "X." If you wanted to be even more dramatic, you could design packaging where the international grimoire of death and danger, the skull and crossbones, gradually appears when a medicine becomes unsafe for consumption.
The technology to create this kind of packaging isn’t out of reach: We’ve already seen ID badges and milk cartons that change color as they expire. Self-expiring medicine packaging seems like a natural fit. As with so many things in the world of big pharma, though, the obstacles in the way of realizing the Goels’ clever design don’t have anything to do with the tech, and definitely not the soundness of the idea.
"The truth is, this kind of packaging might never become a reality unless pharmaceutical companies can profitably pass off the additional cost of the packaging, however miniscule, to the patient," the Goels say. "An FDA mandate could be critical in getting this on shelves."
There could also be regulatory and legal challenges involved that could nix this idea in the bud. "The pharma world is über regulated, and liability lawyers hover around every corner," says Dermot Gildea, an expert on pharmaceutical regulation based in Dublin, Ireland. "In addition, the process to register a change in outer packaging, like the printed packs that a pharmacy might hand to a patient, is more stringently regulated than one might think." Even so, Gildea thinks the Goels might be onto something here. "If the inner pack’s appearance when the medicine is in date is similar to the current form, and the appearance only changes when the medicine expires, then I think this idea could be a winner."
Whether or not the Goels’ concept can clear regulatory, legal, and self-serving pharma industry hurdles is unknown. What is sure, though, is that we all could live in a world where no one has to guess whether a medicine is safe to take. A simple color change could tell us, if only big pharma wants it to.