In the media

QR codes can help pharmaceutical companies in two big ways

Jenna Phillips

By Jenna Phillips


26 May 2022


This article was first published in STAT

QR codes, which had begun a fall into obscurity, have come roaring back. Many restaurants sport these matrix barcodes on tables as replacements for menus. One even appeared in an ad for cryptocurrency during this year's Super Bowl. Pharmaceutical and consumer health care brands should employ them to reduce their environmental impact and create positive patient experiences.

First used in 1994 to track vehicle manufacturing, QR codes — the QR stands for quick response — had a variety of uses. Most took the user to a website displaying information. These images initially required a special reader or app, but their integration into smartphone cameras, along with the Covid-19 pandemic, helped propel them into more mainstream use. In 2021, 90% of consumers reported having scanned a QR code within the last month.

QR codes can play a critical role in reducing packaging, which accounts for an estimated 30% of landfill waste annually. The drug packaging market, growing at a pace of 6.4% a year, is a substantial contributor to paper and packaging waste. QR codes offer opportunities to reduce paper and plastic packaging while providing the added benefit of accurately and efficiently collecting first-party consumer data, which provides opportunities to pursue servitization, the augmentation of products with value-adding offerings like expert advice or subscription access to products.

While this transition has significant positive environmental implications, companies must take great care in making the switch to QR code-based product information: pharmaceutical product packaging is a critical tool for communicating directions for product use and safety information. The Food and Drug Administration requires drugs to be accompanied by package inserts, but today's inserts challenge the industry and consumers due to the limited flexibility to update content and poor scalability while adding packaging waste. Consumers routinely throw away the lengthy inserts. As discarded paper product packaging comprises 25% of landfill waste, drug inserts make a decided — and avoidable — contribution.

QR codes are simple to create and use from a technical perspective and represent an intriguing possibility that has not yet been adopted at scale to communicate effectively with pharmaceutical and health care consumers.

QR codes can create brand and user experience

Pharmaceutical and health care brands can adopt this packaging and label technology with relative ease, focusing on data collection and optimizing the consumer experience. Driving meaningful adoption of QR technology, however, requires planning, ongoing management, and a mindful eye to integrating these codes into organizational communication and data strategy.

Communication strategy. Rather than simply posting the information from the existing label insert on a website or a PDF accessible by scanning a QR code, companies must consider the pieces of information that are most essential to consumers using the product. The crucial pieces of information will differ depending on the consumer and segment that uses the product and the digital technology.

Adopting digital communication tools presents the opportunity to engage consumers in new ways by offering, for example, a step-by-step instruction video to demonstrate appropriate product usage or appropriate product disposal. This can enhance consumer usability and access while supporting them to do the right thing when it comes to waste management. Sharing product use or disposal information digitally also enables brands to make the consumer's experience of learning about the product interactive. Brands could add extra information about the company, and recommend that consumers review products or complete surveys. Consumers could also create user profiles or engage with telehealth services or seek expert advice via the QR code portal.

Many brands in the consumer health and pharmaceutical sector communicate frequently with their consumers about their efforts to deliver on sustainability objectives. Using the digital communications channels accessed by the QR code to communicate about the impact the brand and consumers are having on sustainability provides consumers real-time brand engagement as the environmental sustainability values they share with the brand are on display.

Data strategy. One of the core benefits of digital engagement via QR codes is the opportunity to collect consumer data on how a product is used and what information consumers are seeking about it. By testing and learning through new ways of presenting information online, brands can adapt quickly to meet consumers' preferences and act to increase brand loyalty and repurchase rate.

To deliver maximum benefit from data collection tools and digital service experiences, a QR code should be part of the overall organizational data strategy so the code and the data collection it can facilitate do not become siloed. As more organizations adopt first-party data strategies to gain consumer insights, QR codes can provide a valuable data collection tool. A crucial challenge of integrating novel data assets into a data strategy is adopting the right architecture and operating model to ensure that the data is accessible and usable to deliver the insights that can drive business performance.

QR codes are not yet being used widely as data collection or engagement tools in the pharma and health care spheres. Yet there are a few examples in which this technology is being adopted for these purposes. In India, the government is set to use QR codes on all pharmaceutical packaging ordered under the Department of Pharmaceuticals to help combat counterfeit products. In Florida, Hobbs Pharmacy uses QR codes to help patients quickly and conveniently access thousands of medication-specific usage videos and potential side-effect information. And in 2022, U.S. military pharmacies are implementing QR codes on prescriptions to replace printed drug information. In each of these cases, safety, usability and data collection are key objectives being achieved through the application of QR codes.

While there are some disadvantages to transitioning to a digital-only communication approach, such as lack of access by lower-resource communities that have limited access to the internet, even a small reduction in the use of paper inserts in packaging can make a significant difference to brands trying to achieve their sustainability objectives.

Adopting or experimenting with QR codes can have an impact on digital transformation, environmental sustainability, and improved consumer experience, while offering significant learning opportunities for brands to engage their consumers more effectively and collect valuable real-world data. The technology fits perfectly with a future-facing strategy for both large and small brands in the consumer health care and pharmaceutical space.

Emily Johnson is an operations expert at PA Consulting. Jenna Phillips is an innovation expert at PA Consulting. 



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