An Enormous Wasted Opportunity—Packaging

I can make almost any patient take their medication as directed. It isn’t hard, because I have a lot of close, interpersonal contact with my patients. That gives me the opportunity to use social pressures and a host of other psychological manipulations to encourage my patients to use their medications better and help them get better treatment outcomes (I don’t think there’s anything unethical about gently manipulating people—nudging them—to make their lives better). Overcoming poor adherence is a huge hurdle, and a stimulating intellectual challenge—one that comes with the ultimate payoff in the making of a happy, healthier patient.

One of my challenges in getting patients to use their medications is the dumb packaging that patients’ drugs come in. Think about it for a moment. What would drug packaging look like if we were trying to discourage patients from taking their medications? We’d make the bottles all in one uniform, bland color, easy to misplace and overlook, with tops that were difficult to open. We would probably make them a lot like our current medicine bottles. Over-the-counter medications at least have bright, cheery colors. Our patients get their prescription medications in bottles with a home camouflage design that is fairly unobtrusive and blends in with their surroundings. A powerful tool to get patients to take their medication is a cue to action, something noticeable that makes patients think about their medication, stop, and take it. Our bland packaging seems as though it was painstakingly well designed to avoid cueing patients to take a pill.

Getting Patients to Take Notice

So why do we deliver patients their medications in these dumb bottles? Like a lot of other things, it is just part of our culture. When you grow up and are acclimated to a particular culture, you just accept that that’s the way things are and that that’s the way they should be. Yet when it comes to packaging medications (like a lot of other things in our culture), there is so much potential for considering how else we might do things.

Packaging doesn’t need to be smart—loaded with electronic bells and whistles—not to be dumb. For kids, we could use age and gender appropriate colors and designs that would encourage kids to want to take their medication (and keep the difficult-to-open caps to prevent excess exposure). At the very least, we should package everything in blister packs (akin to birth control pills) that would let patients know if they had taken that day’s dose. The marketing design team would likely have a ball designing packages to fit obtrusively into patients’ home environments, to be something that could almost be displayed in places (perhaps the kitchen or breakfast table) that would capture patients’ attention during their daily routine.

Our industry spends so much money and takes so much risk developing new drugs. Spend just a fraction of those resources developing new packaging. At the end of the day, as marketers, you will also be able to take pride in having improved patients’ outcomes— even more than you do now.

  • Steven Feldman, M.D.

    Dr. Steven Feldman is Professor of Dermatology and Public Health Sciences at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Steve studies patient adherence at North Carolina’s Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He is also Chief Science Officer of Causa Reseach, an adherence solutions company (, founder of, and author of “Compartments” and “An Illustrated Dictionary of Behavioral Economics for Healthcare Professionals.”


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