Packaging Possibilities: Inventor Muses on the Future of Medical Packaging

Image courtesy of Tero Vesalainen / Alamy Stock Photo Medical-packaging-digital-future-Alamy-2B8D0XG-ftd.jpg
What will innovation in medical packaging look like? Nick Webb sees a connected, traceable, intuitive outlook that’s dummied down.

Smart packaging can — should! — revolutionize medical products in the near future, says Nicholas (Nick) Webb, CEO of management consulting firm LeaderLogic LLC. As a best-selling author, professional speaker, and holder of more than 40 technology patents, Webb understands the need for disruption and advocates for chaotic innovation.

In advance of his keynote at the recent medical packaging conference, the[PACK]out, I had the opportunity to pick his brain about the future of medical packaging.

In this episode of Packaging Possibilities, Webb reveals:

• What needs fixing in our healthcare system today, why, and how;
• Why sterile packaging isn’t going away any time soon;
• The direction of intuitive packaging, especially for self-care.

 

PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES - Season 2: Episode 11

If you have a topic you’d like to propose for a future PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES episode, please email Lisa Pierce at lisa.pierce@informa.com.

 

TRANSCRIPTION IS AUTO GENERATED

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Hello! This is Lisa Pierce, Executive Editor of Packaging Digest, with another episode of Packaging Possibilities, a podcast that reveals what’s new and what’s next for packaging executives and engineers, designers and developers.

In this episode, I’ll be talking with Nicholas Webb. Nick is the CEO of a management consulting company called LeaderLogic LLC. He is also a best-selling author and professional speaker, and has more than 40 patents for various technologies, including innovations in healthcare, consumer, and industrial products. His 2021 documentary “The Healthcare Cure” won the Sedona International Film Festival’s “Audience Choice Award.”

Who better to ask about the future of medical packaging, right? I had an opportunity to do just that the afternoon before Nick’s keynote at the new medical packaging conference called the[PACK]out, which took place in Austin, Texas, mid-May 2022.

So, Nick. If it was in your power, what one thing would you fix in our healthcare system and why? And then how?

Nick Webb (guest)
I think that we have … and I’ve had the opportunity to work as an adjunct professor, and as the Chief Innovation Officer in medical school. And I’ve seen it from higher education, I’ve seen it from its practical application in my consulting practice working with drug companies, device companies, health systems — is that we really have a sickness-centric view of the universe.

And if there is one thing that we could change, I think we need to start educating Health Doctors, HDs instead of MDs. Because if we could begin with the premise that health … because think about it … 80% of healthcare costs are self-inflicted chronic disease for the most part. And we talk about making access available to underserved communities and to people. But we really don’t have a discussion around, how do we make health available to people. And everything in society is kind of skewed against health.

You could say … there’s a great book written by a guy years ago called The Next Trillion that really talked about the impact of the food industry and the device industry. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve lived in healthcare my whole life. I’ve been the financial beneficiary of this dysfunctional system. But if I were to say from the humanity perspective, from the ability to care for human beings and to impact their lives, there is no better way to do that than us having that move, a shift from sickness-centric to health and wellness.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
I absolutely love that, and I think you’re on to something wonderful for a lot of reasons. I know that, like, 20-30 years ago, when the health-and-wellness craze started, it all seemed to be centered around selling different products.

Nick Webb (guest)
100%. Good point.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Not solving any problem.

Nick Webb (guest)
100% right. It just created another well center of people selling other types of purple pills, right? So yeah. No. The problem is it’s hard to find those financial and economic models around prevention and wellness. You know, it’s hard for people to create industry around getting people to homeostatic state of wellness, which is where we come into this world for the most part.

And if we want to have the money for chronic disease and for genetic disease and injury … if you want to have money for those processes that weren’t self-inflicted, we have to be able to start to have the the ability …

I’ll give you an example. Where I live, I have a wellness practitioner. They’re super expensive. And I’ve been blessed in my life to be able to afford going to a wellness practitioner. I’ll be 64 in a few months …

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Well you look fantastic!

Nick Webb (guest)
Thanks. And it’s from eating well and practicing that. Why aren’t we demanding that from people that live in inner cities and people that live in rural communities and people in general? We demand more interventions; we don’t tend to demand more prevention and wellness.

If there was nothing we could do, that strategic inflection point, that big shift that I talk about … it would be that for sure.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. Yeah. Is there a future, do you think, were we’re not going to need sterile packaging, where the products might be sterilized right there at the point of use?

Nick Webb (guest)
I’ll talk about this at my keynote tomorrow. I think that, you know … So, what is the ultimate form of sustainability? No package. In fact, early in my career, I developed a product …

Lisa McTigue Pierce
As long as the product is still protected, and the product is still usable from …

Nick Webb (guest)
Right. I mean, you have to create some sterile barrier, right?, in order to provide it that way.

I think that the future of medical packaging has a lot more to do with several other things. One is it’s going to be about connectivity. So for an example, I think we will see just prior to deployment, prior to use, PTU ... um, technologies that verify that the … this device is actually sterile just before it gets used, not through burst test and peel testing or some other form of statistical testing. It’ll be validated because it will be connected package.

So I think … packages are going to look different. We see things like semi-disposable, this new vernacular. So, you know, something comes sterile one time and then after that it’s made out of polysulfoam or some other kind of autoclavable stable material, or gamma stable material. So I think we’ll see these kinds of the hybrids short term. I don’t think it will ever go away completely.

But I will say there are two things sterile packaging would have to have in the future: It’ll have to be layered value and it’ll have to be dynamic value.

And by that, a good example would be a cell phone. An iPhone. The iPhone I think is a phone. I’ve probably used it twice as a telephone in my life. Right?

But what I like about it is it’s a connected node to all knowledge in the universe, right? And so it has layered value. It’s my GPS. It’s my everything, right?

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Everything.

Nick Webb (guest)
Look at the technologies it destroyed. It destroyed radar detectors for people not to get tickets by using Waze, right? By socializing and gamifying a group of drivers to be able to compete against finding police so you don’t get a ticket, right. And it’s replaced everything.

And then … and that’s what we have to do with packaging. It has to be more than just a way that you get a sterile product to a user. It has to be integrated and have some integrated value in most cases. I think you’ll see a lot more of those kinds of technologies where the sterile tray itself is part of the integrated solution.

I also think it has to be dynamic, meaning that we’re going to create connected packaging that has value, that enjoys all of the benefits of connection architecture. Like, again, my iPhone has dynamic value because tomorrow morning when I wake up, it’ll be more valuable to me because a group of connection engineers and app developers have created something to make my iPhone more valuable.

So I see … what we’re developing in my lab, we’re turning rigid packaging into printed circuit boards. So when you get the package, there’s actually circuits in there, that cost virtually nothing to make when you draw … when you form a rigid package that will allow you to determine when medicines are deployed, that allow you to determine if there’s breaches in seal areas. It’ll allow you to do all kinds of interesting things.

Including real-time packaging traceability, which I think is going to … That’s another area that will be really exciting … how real-time management through central purchasing supply and supply chain management to know really, right now, where that thing is, right? And that … these could be to the point where they cost pennies to add connectivity to these packages and to print them as essentially circuit boards. And we’re doing that in our lab.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. Yeah, I’m familiar with printed electronics. So that’s kind of interesting that this would find its way into the medical field for packaging. That’s quite interesting. I know on the retail side of things, RFID has been used for track-and-trace and inventory management and other things. Is that where you’re going? Or does the technology not really matter?

Nick Webb (guest)
Yeah, I don’t think the connectivity matters. There’s a lot … We’ve looked at RFID technology. It has a lot of inherent problems. As we get … with 5G and some of the other capabilities to create connection themes and correct connections architecture, it’s amazing what you can do. So I don’t know that the connection modality is the most important thing.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Nick Webb (guest)
The point that we’re making is that … and I can send you pictures of what we’re working on … it’s super small. Almost invisible. But the device is now connected and we know when that package is open. We know where it lives. It’s essentially like a tile, right?

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Mmm hmm.

Nick Webb (guest)
But more importantly, we can even … and are looking at ways to determine just before, for example, critical implantable technology that has to be 100% sterile. We can validate at point of use. Theoretically.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Nick Webb (guest)
If that is the case, I think that’s the kind of thing that’s a game changer.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Well, it’s interesting because from the example that you just mentioned, this is obviously a, you know, hospital care situation. But you’ve also talked a lot about the empowered patient. And I’m just wondering if part of the empowerment actually lies in self care. And we are seeing a lot more of that. Is the technology that you’re talking about, or just the idea that you are talking about for this connectedness, just as important for the self-care situation?

Nick Webb (guest)
I think so. And certainly there is a move towards a decentralization of care, which continue to march on. When we filmed our documentary film, the few weeks prior …

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Was that The Healthcare Cure?

Nick Webb (guest)
The Healthcare Cure, yeah. When we filmed that film, we interviewed the folks from ???? hospital in San Diego. And we said, you know, how many telemedicine consults did you do, you know, last week? And they said, “Eight.”

Lisa McTigue Pierce
That’s all, from the whole hospital?

Nick Webb (guest)
Right. Huge system. And how many did you do after COVID? 3,500 a day.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Whoa.

Nick Webb (guest)
And guess what? The patients loved it because the dialogue was monocular, as in there was no peripheral noise of the practice. There was no nurse coming in, grabbing the doctor out of the room. The doctor could also benefit with ethnography. They can look behind the patient and kind of see how they live. They can look at their facial expressions. And of course they’re now going to embed AI [artificial intelligence] into telemedicine consoles where we can look at what we call facial AI. I’ve recently filed some patents on head movement AI, which could potentially look at neural pathology based on head movement. And also they can look at things like voice AI. Inflection. Clarity of speech. Modulation. Volume. These things tell the caregiver a lot about their mental state or even their ability … how much sleep they’ve gotten, lucidity. So the richness is really incredible.

I think packaging-wise, what these caregivers are going to need [are] signals of usage.

Nick-Webb-quote-1-web.jpg

So they open up a package, that package is communicating to their local connected device, the local server to let them know what they’re taking, when they took it to verify compliance. We’re going to be able to address poly-pharmacy issues.

And we’ve done this before. There are already other technologies that do it. I think that hyper-connectivity of medical packaging is a big part of the future of packaging.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent. It’s exciting to think about where we’re going to be going because I know at the device level, at the product level, they’ve braced technology 100%.

Nick Webb (guest)
100%.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
And I understand that it’s a regulated industry, you know, both the product level as well as the packaging level. It just seems like the innovation on the product level is a little bit more outpacing on the packaging side.

Nick Webb (guest)
I think it is. Yes. Yeah.

The problem is rigid and flexible packaging works. But that puts the packaging industry in a very dangerous opportunistic environment for chaotic disruption. If you take a look at the definition of … here’s how we transition through innovation. We started in when we call symmetrical innovation. That’s where the packaging industry started 100 years ago — symmetrical innovation, which means slow and small innovations. Because if you look at a rigid package and a lidstock and a seal flange … you know, not a lot of difference there. You take a look at a peel-pouch … I mean, I’ve been in healthcare for decades. I’ve never seen any really demonstrative changes to that, right?

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Well, I think the chevron was a big deal when it came out.

Nick Webb (guest)
That was a big deal. There you go.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yeah.

Nick Webb (guest)
And so then what’s next? We’ve been talking the last 10 years about this second phase of innovation called disruptive innovation. And disruptive innovation is the size … the speed and the size of innovation. And almost in every industry, we’ve gone from symmetrical innovation to disruptive innovation, meaning that the innovations are moving quickly and it’s the nature of the size of change is big.

Well, now in healthcare, we’re moving into chaotic innovation. And chaotic innovation has two interesting molecules. One is it asymmetrical, meaning that it just comes from nowhere. All of a sudden you’ve got app developers destroying optometry. They’re destroying orthodontics. They’re destroying audiology. Compete segments within healthcare have been displaced through connection architecture and the digitalization of health.

So I think that … so think about that trajectory, those three big waves. Where is medical packaging? They’re still way back in symmetrical innovation.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, they are. So much so.

Nick Webb (guest)
Yeah. In preparing for this talk, I was struggling to find some examples of even disrupted innovation.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Well, one of the things that I’ve been hearing from other people is that they think that medical packaging needs to learn a lot more from the retail area.

Nick Webb (guest)
For sure.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Not just over-the-counter drugs and medical products that way. But just any retail product that’s for sale that’s been identified as innovative and trying to learn what’s the lesson there.

Nick Webb (guest)
Yeah.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
I think, one of the things that I really want to get your take on this because I’m of two minds on it. So on the retail side, it’s always been helpful if not imperative for the packaging to be intuitive to use as possible …

Nick Webb (guest)
Right.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Because in addition to protecting the product from point of manufacturer to point of use, it also is, a lot of times, providing another function, whether it’s dispensing or, you know, whatnot.

Nick Webb (guest)
Yeah.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
In those instances, it’s extremely helpful for it to be intuitive. You, you know, know that you unscrew the closure before you drink out of your Coke bottle.

Nick Webb (guest)
Right.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
That, we know, is intuitive because we’ve been doing it for so long. But, I wonder if maybe there’s a little bit of a risk for medical packaging to be deliberately intuitive. And, perhaps, does that replace the instructions? Or is it intuitive on top of the instructions. Because if it’s intuitive and somebody misunderstands, there’s a point where they could misuse it, correct?

Nick Webb (guest)
Yeah.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
How do you feel about intuitive packaging for medical?

Nick Webb (guest)
I think it’s important, right? The thing that’s interesting … It’s amazing to me … like you and I can sit down and we can reinvent the aspirin bottle pretty easily. What do we know …

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Oh, man. You’re putting a lot of faith in me, aren’t ya?

Nick Webb (guest)
Well, think about it. You need to put on readers, even if you have good vision …

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Nick Webb (guest)
… and you’re not presbyopian. The overwhelming majority of people who are using pain medicines especially — anti-inflammatory — they’re old. And they also have presbyopia. They have visual compromise.

I did a workshop the other day. I held up a bottle. The biggest bottle I could find. A box of one of the top pain relievers. And I took pictures of it. And I put it on the screen, blown up. I said, “Tell me how many of these you’re supposed to take.” We couldn’t find … nobody … for 15 minutes we’re trying to find … just tell me how many of these I’m supposed to take. Do that challenge sometime. Pick up something on the … see how long it takes you to find out the medicine … so the problem is, is that we have to strip complexity away and instructions and that’s where, you know, we used to talk about the dummy down in packaging and product design. We really do need to dummy down.

“We have to strip complexity away and instructions. That’s where we used to talk about the dummy down in packaging and product design. We really do need to dummy down.”

A really beautiful example of that is Lemonade Insurance. Now it’s a website and not a package. But it’s a good example of what you can do that’s beautiful.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
So what do they do?

Nick Webb (guest)
You go to their website and you’re almost struck by the lack of “there” there. There’s a phone, a line drawing of a phone. There’s almost no text and it says “Get insurance in 90 seconds,” “File a claim in 60 seconds.” I mean, what?! Yeah.

So the one thing that most people don’t realize is that we deliver experiences across, as you know from What Customers Crave [Nick’s book], we deliver experiences across five well-defined touchpoints. And I think what we have to do is look at the complexity and the friction and the intuitiveness across these various moments of usage. And that’s where we should be designing products around moments of usage. And that’s where ease of use comes … it should be intuitive. I mean, instructions are great. But, I mean, I spent a lot of time in my early career selling a lot of intraocular lenses and watching things going from …

Lisa McTigue Pierce
What are those?

Nick Webb (guest)
For cataract surgery. We had the first foldable intraocular lens for small ??? surgery. And you see medical packaging going from non-sterile to sterile environments into the sterile field. And those are moments, and you could identify nine different moments just from the time that a package is sent to a surgery center or to a hospital to the time that it goes there.

So the cool kids, the ones who are going to nail packaging, they’re going to invent across … they’re going to identify those moments, they’re going to invent across those moments. They’re going to make it intuitive when necessary and additive, they’re going to add instructions. They’re going to focus on the instructions.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Nick Webb (guest)
But as you know from human factors design, the less … the more we can strip away, the more simple and elegant and beautiful it is. We want to tell stories with packages. The best designers are telling stories.

The worst designers are phoning it in and transacting the design of a package, which represents a lot of medical and healthcare packaging.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Well, I know all the regulations don’t make it easy to be innovative in medical packaging. But I think that we’re on the cusp of a beautiful relationship with the innovators and the folks on the packaging line, making this all happen.

Nick Webb (guest)
I feel like the regulatory compliance is though sometimes used as the wildcard for why we don’t tend to invent here at XYZ Packaging.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Like a crutch, you mean?

Nick Webb (guest)
I think it’s an excuse. “Well, I’d do it if it wasn’t for the fact that we had to comply.”

The truth of the matter is … of course, you have to comply. That’s your entry pass into medical packaging. Yeah, so what. Big deal. You know … it’s sort of like people who talk about so many other things in healthcare. Like today, in the delivery of care, you have to be a doctor to deliver care. That’s just the beginning. You’re in the experiential innovation business when you’re a caregiver. So if you’re designing a medical package, your room for innovation is wide. Your bigger problem is the cultural lack of appetite for risk taking. And the risk … nobody dies; and you’re not going to risk safety testing, and you’re not going to risk regulatory compliance. But there is so much room to innovate. And we’ve got to, kind of, maybe take that excuse away from a lot of people because nothing’s going to go out the door that isn’t compliant, that hasn’t been safety checked.

Let’s create cultures within our organizations that allow people to take smart risks.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, I like that. I like where we’re going. But let’s look at other risks. In the healthcare industry, we measure risk by life … life or death because, seriously, it usually is a life-or-death situation.

But there’s another risk that I think the companies that is a little bit more what limits innovation at … in the packaging department at these companies, and that is financial. Doesn’t innovation usually take more time, take more money, take more investment?

Nick Webb (guest)
If you subscribe to the idea that medical packaging doesn’t get to live in vacuum outside the trajectory of innovation change, then the biggest risk is not being relevant and getting blindsided. So that’s always the case, right? In my view, we are in an opportunistic environment where chaotic … Just in my little lab, we’ve filed a half a dozen patents of technologies that have the potential to be very disruptive. Maybe even chaotic.

And so I think … think about what’s going on with healthcare in general. You have Amazon destroying CVS Pharmacies and pharmacy … they are the new pharmacy. They were disrupted by a tech company.

What is CVS and other great retail pharmacies doing? And Walmart? They’re now the primary caregiver doctors in their towns through their clinics.

So disruption is coming from all different places. I think in healthcare packaging and in medical packaging we’re going to see disruption coming from places outside of the industry that are willing to do some crazy stuff.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. Well, I look forward to seeing a lot of that crazy stuff because it always makes a good copy.

Nick Webb (guest)
Right.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Selfishly, I’m looking forward to this very much.

Nick Webb (guest)
Thank you.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Nick, thank you so very much.

Nick Webb (guest)
My pleasure. Thank you. That was fun.

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