Thirty months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m exhausted thinking of all the ways society has evolved. Our attention to societal health is certainly more advanced. Our approach to travel is permanently altered. And our comfort level with sticking a swab up our nose, awaiting a test result, is now strangely normal.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by that last example. Self-testing has been a part of our lives longer than we may at first realize. At-home pregnancy tests have been on the market for decades. Finger prick tests have been the norm for diabetes patients for years, although that is changing quickly. And now, rapid COVID antigen tests went from an early preventative move to THE first step in diagnosis.
In a recent CDC survey of 19,000 adults, the top three reasons for taking a rapid antigen test were: 1) I was exposed to COVID-19; 2) I have COVID-19 symptoms, and; 3) I don’t feel well. That sounds obvious in hindsight, right? But think back 5 or 10 years ago, where your first reaction was likely “I’ll call the doctor to schedule an appointment.” Over the span of one (albeit devastating) disease, we shifted our mindset from ‘going to the doctor’s office’ to ‘take a test at home’. That’s a major transformation that will impact healthcare AND packaging forever.
With the enormous shift to at-home testing, there will be other markets that will be required to react just to keep up. Just as the American Gold Rush led to a need for more pickaxes and denim jeans, the shift to at-home testing will call for (a lot) more packaging. How will our industry react? What if we rush to market with incorrect packaging materials, over-engineered designs, or a lack of consideration for sustainability? These tests are produced in the millions. One wrong decision by a packaging engineer could lead to a massive pile-up in landfills, sacrificed test effectiveness, or some combination of the two.
Earlier this year, LEK Consulting covered this trend about the shift towards Home-Health-in-a-Box. They included a startling statistic about the potential for home health. Today, home health spending only accounts for ~3% of total health expenditures. That means 97% of health spending is still within the doctor’s office, the hospital, or the lab. There is a remarkable runway for at-home diagnostic testing to carve into.
While I’m excited for the disruptive technology in this space, I am cautiously watching how the test providers react. Forward-thinking supply chain professionals will recognize the bottlenecks to come. Progressive packaging engineers will also be thinking about the waste stream and the impact of their decisions. There are smart choices we can make at the start, like choosing the appropriate barrier material or finding the “right-sized” package for our test design. For all of us in the packaging world, we need to recognize the scale in front of us and react accordingly.