Packaging used in the healthcare industry is almost as important as the contents inside the packaging, and like its contents, it must meet numerous performance requirements to ensure the safety and well-being of medical patients. Because of this, healthcare packaging has remained largely unchanged over the years despite existing challenges. Some of these challenges were revealed by a nurses’ panel that discussed the changes and capabilities healthcare providers would like to see in the products they utilize every day.
This kind of feedback is essential in developing solutions that help providers effectively care for their patients, and the time is right to start thinking beyond traditional packaging options.
Here are a few of the healthcare industry’s biggest packaging pain points and ways in which flexible packaging can address them.
Medical Equipment Sterilization and Protection
One of the biggest hurdles of packaging is standing up to sterilization processes, which is an absolute must in healthcare. Fortunately, flexible packaging holds up well under two of the most prominent sterilization agents for medical supplies: ethylene oxide (ETO) and gamma radiation.
Flexible packaging’s polyethylene structure gives it a unique breathability that’s suitable for the process of flushing ETO into the packaging and pulling it back out. Breathability is not a factor for gamma sterilization, but the packaging materials must pass through the sterilization process without becoming brittle or yellowed, making the strength and versatility of flexible packaging an excellent option.
This strength and versatility also ensures that the contents of the package will remain protected until they are utilized. Flexible packaging provides puncture resistance and seal strength, important features given the increase in healthcare products that are being shipped to medical facilities and homes. Surgical masks, gloves, medicines, and other products can all benefit from flexible packaging’s durability.
Healthcare Worker Efficiency
When a sterilized product safely reaches the hands of a busy healthcare worker, the packaging it’s housed in should not slow them down. These workers must access contents quickly, but gloved hands and the frequent need to hold several packages at once can make traditional packages difficult to handle. Additionally, the tamper-evident stickers that serve their important purpose also provide unwanted hassle, as workers must take the time to remove them.
Flexible packaging offers a number of easy-to-open features like sliders and zippers that allow for quick access. Fresh-Lock® style 375 is a string zipper that is both easy to open and secure for locking in products like cotton balls, while its high package-side holding strength and low consumer-side holding strength allows for usage across many applications, from stiff laminate to thin poly films. The Slide-Rite® Ergonomic Slider is also a good option for medical packaging, as its contoured shape make it easy to grip and slide for consistent opening and closing, ideal for busy, gloved hands.
Fresh-Lock® style 375
Slide-Rite® Ergonomic Slider
Another benefit of flexible packaging is uniquely colored tear-away hoods that provide simple-to-remove yet effective tamper evidence. Strategic color usage also provides visual cues for where to open the package. Additionally, advancements in digital printing have allowed for pictures and diagrams that can simplify instructions for intuitive use. Digital printing also enables flexible packaging to include large expiration dates, table of contents, and other important identifiers that make the products stand out among the multitude of supplies in a hospital setting. Flexible packaging can even include windows that allow workers to easily see what’s in the package as opposed to reading what it contains.
Removing Secondary Medical Packaging
Because flexible packaging can provide clear product information and proper product protection, secondary packages or cartons are not required. In reality, healthcare workers are already discarding secondary packages to make room in their crowded storage spaces, but current internal pouches can’t be hung. Additionally, the secondary package often includes important external messaging about the product, and that is lost once the package is thrown away. You also run the risk of losing instruction cards that were contained in the secondary package.
Flexible packaging can be designed to hang or stand up for easy, organized storage. When designed with the end user in mind, flexible packaging saves time when searching for, identifying, and opening a package.
Sustainable Medical Packaging
The removal of multiple packaging components helps with another problem facing the healthcare industry: sustainability.
According to the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC), U.S. healthcare facilities generate approximately 2,800 to 3,500 tons of plastic packaging and plastic product waste daily. Unfortunately, most of this packaging is going to landfills or being incinerated despite 85% of it being nonhazardous. Up to 60% of plastic waste generated by healthcare facilities is flexible material, but they are often composed of multi-material laminates that are unrecyclable when using common recycling technologies.
Mono-material flexible packaging can help reduce the landfill burden without compromising package functionality. By eliminating unnecessary packaging materials and providing an option that can support a circular economy, the right flexible packaging options can help medical facilities with these sustainability problems.
While there are still infrastructure challenges for medical packaging, the HPRC is exploring hospital waste diversion strategies and encouraging manufactures to consider recycling potential at the design stage.
Implementing Flexible Packaging for Medical Equipment
Despite these benefits, flexible packaging is growing slower in this industry than it is in food, pet food, and other consumer markets like gardening. As mentioned earlier, intensive package requirements for medical products have kept many in the market from pursuing options outside of traditional, proven packaging. However, the medical industry can take cues from the food industry, which is faced with similar packaging challenges.
Sterilization, product protection, containment, storage efficiency, and clear labeling are all necessary for proper food packaging. Even though flexible food packaging is held to many of the same FDA standards as medical packaging, it continues to grow in use and applications.
The process for developing new packaging that meets safety standards is long given testing and validation requirements. However, flexible packaging can minimize these lead times, drive down material and equipment costs, and offer sustainability benefits throughout its lifecycle, making it a leading alternative to current packaging solutions.
Create Your Own Flexible Packaging Solution
Flexible packaging options and closures are ready for use in the healthcare industry, and now is a terrific time to balance user-friendliness, product and user safety, and sustainability. Start packaging development as early in your product’s development timeline as possible and be sure to work with experienced packaging professionals who know the testing procedures and FDA requirements to guarantee your packaging is properly aligned with industry standards.
Even if you don’t see a flexible packaging and closure option that is right for you, we can work closely with you to understand what your packaging must accomplish in order to develop the best solution for your needs.
If you are ready to explore flexible packaging for your medical equipment, contact the Fresh-Lock team today.