Medical Packaging Design Requires Comprehensive Approach

  • Laura Bix, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor
  • School of Packaging
  • College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Most of us have experienced the frustration of trying to open a package that is well sealed and well insulated. If a healthcare professional trying to open a package containing a medical device experiences that same frustration, it can mean a difference in quality of care, or even life or death for a patient.

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Laura Bix, associate professor in MSU's School of Packaging, works with a wide range of practitioners, students, and medical professionals to identify the critical issues involved in healthcare packaging.

Cost considerations, ease of opening and handling, maximizing sterility and minimizing contamination, and preventing user error are some of the many factors Bix takes into account when working with industry partners.

"We look at the effectiveness of package design in accomplishing a given task (e.g. selection, opening, dosing, closing, disposing) using three criteria: the design itself, the intended user, and the environment in which the design and the user interface," Bix says.

Healthcare Packaging Immersion Experience

Two years ago, Bix and the School of Packaging participated in a pilot effort with Oliver-Tolas Healthcare Packaging, a Michigan-based firm, and MSU's Learning and Assessment Center to host the first Healthcare Packaging Immersion Experience (HcPIE). This year's event included sessions and simulations aimed at giving medical device packaging professionals and students insight about the realities of using packaging designs in daily situations.

For one presentation during HcPIE 2011, the team created a video entitled The Incredible Journey of a Medical Device Package: From Packaging Line to Disposal. Using IV start kits as the packaging sample because of their relatively low cost per piece, widespread use, and the critical role they play in multiple healthcare procedures, she illustrated the journey from design to delivery. A flow chart was created that showed the numerous people and locations involved, from assembly to 'terminal sterilization' to a warehouse distribution center to hospitals in Detroit and Lansing. Three cameras were used to capture "the journey:" an eye tracking camera which captures the point of view of the user (e.g., production line worker, healthcare provider, or patient), a spy camera which captured the product point of view and an overall scene camera.

"Our goal was to show multiple angles and start points in the journey," says Bix. "Packaging design encompasses a comprehensive understanding of human factors in the process."

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One filming location involved paramedics who serve as LAC instructors and who also work at Delta Township. Students filmed the paramedics as they simulated responding to an accident scene. At the HCPIE conference they explained to the audience how they pack each ambulance with items from the master inventory list, checking expiration dates and bundling certain devices for quick retrieval.

"We pack ET tubes according to size and secure them with a rubber band. If those packages had labels printed in different colors indicating size differentiations it would save time when we treat critical needs patients," said one paramedic.

Another paramedic, a ten-year veteran, talked about "adapting to whatever we've been given. We learn to improvise, but it's good to have the opportunity to talk [with you] about these things. Most of the time I open a package with one hand and use my other hand to hold or secure something else with the patient. I appreciate the opportunity to explain how much better it is when there are multiple pieces that are packed in order of use in packages like IV start kits."

Jane Severin, vice president for technology at Oliver-Tolas, said the immersion experience is a valuable exchange of viewpoints and contributes to their company's high standards of medical device manufacturing. "We appreciate the thorough, solution-based approach by Dr. Bix and her MSU colleagues."

Bix approaches her work with an eye toward incorporating the smallest details. "During the pre-hospital simulation, the students and I were rocking the ambulance back and forth to recreate the motion the paramedics experience in an actual run as they treat patients and open packages with medical supplies and devices."

In addition to her work with HcPIE, Bix serves as the faculty leader of MSU's Packaging HUB, a group that incorporates healthcare, universal design, and biomechanics into packaging design and engineering research. The HUB team received the department's first-ever National Institutes for Health R-21 grant (awarded for projects that involve exploratory or developmental research) to investigate the impacts of using Front of Pack nutritional labeling on food packages.

According to Bix, MSU is the only university with faculty dedicated to issues in medical packaging, making it a rich area for research.

"Packaging design may address some of the most critical issues in healthcare," says Bix. "Our research and work with external partners contributes to the effectiveness and security of medical devices, products, and processes."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs Courtesy of Laura Bix

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