Has technology gone too far? Or perhaps, not far enough?
It seems odd to think that our healthcare system still has a long way to go in terms of treatment. When looking back at all the diseases that have been prevented, cured, or simply eradicated because of the past century of modern medicine, it’s amazing to realize that so much was done in such a relatively short amount of time. However, there are still so many conditions to be treated or studied.
The medical world still needs to adapt and evolve to better treat patients.
Additionally, malpractice and accidents still happen fairly regularly in the medical field. Much of this has to do with our individual needs or unique personal healthcare requirements. Blanket treatments might have been the approach of the past, but this particular treatment to medical issues won’t work for every instance. Every human body is different, so why shouldn’t our healthcare match our unique bodies, too?
Luckily, this evolution into personalized medicine is off to a strong start. As doctors begin to invest in methods that help address personal needs, researchers are rising to the occasion and realizing that treatment doesn’t lie in one universal cure, but in individualized care.
The latest development in personalized medicine might be the most inventive form yet: quick response (QR) coded medications. Let’s look at how this new development will forever alter our concept of healthcare and medicine, as well as address if it has the potential to permanently disrupt the pharmaceutical industry.
Dosages With QR Codes
Mass production has always been the method for delivering medications to individual patients. Despite the fact that many people metabolize at different rates or might have different dosage requirements based on their body size, little has been done within the pharmaceutical industry to improve the patient experience in this regard. Mass production might be the way of pharmaceuticals, but not all patients can be treated with equal amounts of an active compound.
Luckily, this unique approach to personalized medications might be in the near future.
Researchers with the University of Copenhagen and Abo Akademi University in Finland have successfully printed medications. That’s right, printed medicine: all done with something akin to your typical inkjet printer.
The process consists of a few straightforward steps. The base is a simple, white, edible material that can be sent through a printer. The other portion is the medicine itself, which is printed onto the paper in two-dimensions (2D) via a typical printer set up with the medicine acting as “ink,” and designed in a unique QR coded pattern. The QR code corresponds with the dosage and the medication, which allows doctors and patients the opportunity to monitor and tailor the medication to their personal needs.
As one researcher, Natalja Genina, an assistant professor at the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Copenhagen, noted: “Simply doing a quick scan [of the QR code], you can get all the information about the pharmaceutical product. In that sense it can potentially reduce cases of wrong medication and fake medicine.”
The idea behind the invention is to improve patient care and to provide on-demand production of drugs for pharmacies. But why use a QR code? According to the researchers, the code allows patients the opportunity to easily scan their medications with a smartphone, which “could ultimately lead to safer and more patient-friendly drug products in the future,” as noted by R&D Magazine.
Technology and the Future of Personalized Medicine
What’s so unique about this new form of personal medicine isn’t just the on-demand application, but the fact that the pill itself works as data storage. The QR code is both the medicine and a data key for the patient—allowing quick access to information about the dosage amount and drug facts.
Despite the unique approach, these QR code medications are only the latest in a series of streamlining approaches to individualized care. Health identification cards are also becoming a common form of patient services that are also easily scannable by a computer.
The Data Security Risks
As Marylhurst University notes: “Standardized cards containing patient information that are machine readable can speed the admission process and reduce errors in data entry, resulting in significant savings of time and money for both patients and administrators alike. This is something tomorrow’s [healthcare] leaders can take on and spearhead as they work to improve the efficiency of their organizations.”
However, this also raises the ever-constant concern about patient privacy. As technology advances, patient data becomes increasingly prone to security breaches. And if a patient’s prescription is easily scannable with any mobile device, it’s understandable that some patients might be adverse to the idea.
Unfortunately, security isn’t the only concern for patient data in our current technological age: the price of storing digital information, standardizing data entry processes, and training staff can all provide additional setbacks. Accuracy is also an issue, as typos and lack of standardization can create unnecessary roadblocks or complications for doctors and patients.
In some ways, this new QR-coded medicine could help eliminate some of the issues related to standardization. Unfortunately, it would also require intense training, accurate data entry on behalf of the pharmacist and doctor, as well as a whole new approach to prescribing medications. It would certainly disrupt the healthcare industry, but it will also require a large adjustment on behalf of healthcare workers.
Disrupting the Pharmaceutical Industry
The other question revolving around this new QR code medication is how this technology could change the pharmaceutical industry. As mentioned previously, mass production of pills with equal amounts of an active compound is how most medications are created currently—despite the fact that it might not be the best method for the patient. With this new technology, the process of production as well as portions of the supply chain could be disrupted.
Currently, the supply chain mirrors that of almost every other manufacturing sector: from the extraction of raw materials, to the warehouse, to the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, to various distribution centers, and from there it either goes to the pharmacy or hospital before arriving in the hands of patients. There are also two forms of distribution channels: prescription medications (which require guidance by a physician and are only sold by licensed pharmacists) and over-the-counter medications.
Unlike traditional medications, the QR code medications can be directly printed from anywhere—as long as the consumer, hospital, or pharmacy has access to the raw material (medication compounds) that makes up the “ink” of the printer and access to the edible “paper” material. In some ways this might not change the supply chain all that much: manufacturers can still distribute the medicine, but simply supply it in a different, possibly higher concentrated form to pharmacies.
Nonetheless, this new evolution in medicine will require an increased need for professional pharmacy informatics, or pharmacists who are focused on data entry, updating patient records, and implementing electronic monitoring and ordering. These technicians will also have to be conscious of any issues with accuracy where personalized orders are concerned.
A Fresh Concept for Personalized Medicine
This new form of personalized medication very well could be a breath of fresh air for many patients who have struggled with dosage and refill issues. However, time will tell if the pharmaceutical industry will be on-board with this new approach to medicine. The Federal Drug Administration is another hurdle that this technology will have to face. Outside of the bureaucratic aspects, adaptation to this new approach could take a few years to implement in pharmacies, and will take thousands of hours of training and guidance. As wonderful as this invention might sound, it could be years before we ever see a legalized technique like it on American soil.