QR Codes & Medical Packaging

Have you used QR codes in your packaging design?

Quick response (QR) codes have paid their dues in the general consumer sector and are ready for widespread use with medical packaging. Putting the codes on most or all medical packages would provide an instantaneous pathway to further information about the product inside the package.

 Merle R. Snyder

QR codes aren't a new concept. They are the product of an evolution in the need to encode and transmit data more efficiently -- sometimes secretly and sometimes openly.

For a brief look at the history of this evolution, consider oceangoing military ships trying to communicate with one another by waving combinations of flags. From the current perspective, it's a wonder the flag wavers ever sent or received anything accurately.

Morse code proved a far superior alternative. The code (named for Samuel F.B. Morse, one of its co-inventors) uses long and/or short audio tones for each letter of the English alphabet. The code can be written (mostly for training) but is intended for use as an audio code. One of its initial advantages was that it could be used effectively if radio or telephone transmissions were unavailable or ineffective. Learning the code is somewhat comparable to learning how to ride a bicycle. Once you've learned it, it's almost possible to forget. In my teens, I qualified at 13 words per minute to receive my general class amateur (ham) radio license.

The evolution of bar codes from Morse code is mind boggling. Just as Isaac Newton reportedly got the idea of gravity from being hit on the head by a apple, the inventor of bar codes reportedly got the notion while playing on the beach. (Apparently, some inventive minds just can't rest.) He rotated the symbols from horizontal to vertical. After a fair amount of fiddling -- voilà -- bar codes were born, though readying the concept for practical applications took some more work. For example, unlike radio codes, the two-dimensional set of bars, read in one dimension only, requires direct line-of-sight access to the reading device, unlike radio frequency codes.


The QR code is also two-dimensional and looks like a random ink blot. It is actually readable in two dimensions by most of today's handheld digital devices. It provides a direct digital link to information on the relevant subject. A cursory check of a recent newspaper found QR codes on advertisements for a car dealer, a mortgage lender, and a large supplier of liquor, which some might consider medicine. That last ad leaves nothing to chance; it says, "Full Sale List at our Website or Scan QR Code."

That kind of usefulness in diverse applications should create grounds for serious consideration by the medical packaging industry. 

Stay relevant as a medical device packaging engineer

Merle R. Snyder, Freelance Writer & Editor

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