Michael Patkin's

Are drug companies making a proper packet out of it?

Publication history, Reflections & comments



Surgery & ergonomics


Information design

Editorials, book reviews




IS PACKAGING, like war, too important to be left to the experts? Some doctors think so, especially when they look at the time-wasting mess in their medical bags, or think about. the over-worked cursing sisters in a small hospital who have to keep. check of. drug-stocks .

Drug firms market their products in sophisticated packaging, doubtless based on their own careful analysis. The result does not always suit the final user of the package.

He is in a weak position to feed back information, even through the medium of altering the sales turnover as a consumer of a particular company's output.

What does the doctor or nurse want from a package, containing; medical drugs, of which there is a wide variety, and when time is an ever-present factor?

1. Storability. The container itself should not take up much room in addition to that of its contents. It must be robust enough to protect its contents, and its shape should allow efficient storage side by side with other. containers.

2. Identification. The label indicating the contents must be easy to read, with large efficient lettering on a flat surface.

If the package is likely to be stored with its edge or its end exposed, then this is where the labelling should be.

For the person about to treat a patient it is important to see the drug name and strength, and other relevant factors such as expiry date.

3. Stock control on a small scale. The user (doctor or nurse) wants to know when to order
or insert a further supply, by direct observations rather than a formal inventory.

In practical terms he. wants to -know how much is left in the package, which should therefore be .transparent unless light has a bad effect on -the contents.

4. Ease of handling1.The package should be shaped and proportioned so that it can be picked- up readily. Adjacent containers should not fit so snugly together that a starting grip is difficult.

This implies rounded edges which allow a fingertip to be inserted between or behind the packages, or a tab large enough to be gripped without too much effort by the tips of the thumb and index finger.

5. Ease of dispensing. The container should be easy, to open without straining the fingernail. It should allow one or two of the contained items to be tipped out as readily as a larger quantity.

If the lid can remain attached but opened by the same hand it frees the other hand to receive the contents or to hold a recepatacle.

There is. an interesting chance for experiment in design here.

6. Quality of container. Many plastic containers for non-medical items are awkward to open especially if there is a sliding lid to stick. Some scratch readily, and others come apart at the hinge.

7. Price and availability. These in turn depend on demand, which can be a function of business acumen and imagination in finding other uses.

In practical terms, these propositions can be translated into a doctor's bag container which is rectangular with round edges, transparent, modular (in quinary or decimal multiples of 1 x 2 x 5 centimetres), and allow end-labelling.

Similar considerations apply to the store of drugs in a hospital ward, except that instead of a quantity to last a patient overnight, stock should be enough for a week for one or more patients, varying with the likely demand for the drug, and depending on the considered opinion of ward sisters and hospital pharmacists.

If logical packaging is such an attractive proposition for the user, why hasn't it been taken up by the drug companies?

The need for any kind of streamlining seems clear enough ,when it is widely-agreed that 15 per cent of drugs are given erroneously in good hospitals.

Camera film comes in end-labelled boxes of standard size, and so does soap powder. Rectangular milk cartons have an obvious advantage in space economy.

Tape cassettes are uniform the whole world over; most ampoules of drugs.for injection_ contain one millilitre of solution.

Perhaps the drug companies are unaware of -the dilemma: at the other end, and even the user may be unconscious of avoidable effort.

Perhaps the drug companies don't care to be told how to run their business, a universal human characteristic which apples doctors as well.

Agreement on standardisation is hard to imagine when there are over 100 drug companies, with many of the largest ones controlled from abroad.

There is also the factor of a company image, promoted in packaging styles as well as other ways. It would be asking a lot for drug companies to alter established procedures and designs.

There is a simple alternative. An adventurous packing company may be prepared to explore this new field of modular packaging for hospital and surgery use.

Fishermen and radio techmcians are already well provided for in this respect.

In the case of smaller hospitals, regulations forbid repackaging, but outside pharmacists might be asked to help both for legal and practical purposes.

Drug companies might be the first to agree with the benefits of a little healthy competition. Any starters?

1 Patkin M (1969). Australian Financial Review, 15 January. Ergonomics: The shape of handles to come




1. Storability.
2. Identification.
3. Stock control
4. Ease of handling.
5. Ease of dispensing.

6. Quality of container.
7. Price and availability.

I had a bee in my bonnet about the way drugs were packaged and labelled. The Australian Financial Review seemed happy to accept an unsolicited article on the subject, though I don't remember them offering to pay me for it.

After it was published I wrote an unsolicited and unsigned editorial about it for the Medical Journal of Australia, which they published without quibble.

Then I wrote a second small article for the AFR quoting the MJA editorial along the lines of "look - they've quoted our article - it must be important!"

It was like playing ping-pong with myself by running at the speed of sound from one end of the table to the other.


MICHAEL PATKIN analyses packaging for doctors .


"Some quinidine for that bad coronary, Sister - if you can find it,"

and below,
a drawer in a physician's desk: "Where the heck's the adrenalin!?"