Kiran Mazumdar –Shaw, CMD Biocon

There are nearly half a billion diabetes patients in the world today and by 2040 that number is expected to climb to over 640 million. Even as diabetes incidence grows across the globe, developed markets like the U.S. are grappling with astronomical prices of one of the key medications for people with diabetes: insulin. Prices of insulin in U.S. have skyrocketed in recent years, more than tripling between 2002 and 2013, according to the American Diabetes Association. Insulin now costs over $5,700 per year for the average patient, and many patients still spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars out of their pockets every month. Some patients have resorted to starving themselves and rationing their insulin, sometimes with fatal consequences.

With insulin use expected to rise 20% by 2030, there is an urgent need for disruptive ideas to ensure that the cost of insulin therapy is sustainable for patients in the long run.

Reusable Vs Disposable Insulin Pens

Insulin pens are an innovation designed to provide people with diabetes an easy-to-use, convenient-to-administer and accurate method of insulin delivery. They enable better patient compliance and help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar levels most effectively.

As insulin injections are a daily requirement, insulin pens need to combine patient convenience and affordability. Disposable pens are generally more convenient than reusable pens because you do not need to load any cartridges, but they usually cost more to use than reusable pens and cartridges and also contribute to a significant amount of medical waste.

Though a majority of diabetes patients in the West prefer to take their insulin using these use-and-throw pens, we need to assess whether the cost of these devices are sustainable individually as well as environmentally.

I believe people with diabetes should be given a choice of insulin delivery device. Adults between the ages of 18 and 60 should have the option of using a disposable pen or a reusable pen. When given the choice, more people are likely to choose the more affordable and environmentally friendlier reusable pens.

Disposable pens should only be given to the very old or the very young, who would find it difficult to load a reusable pen.

The High Cost of Convenience

Humanity is becoming increasingly oblivious to the harm that it is causing the environment in the name of convenience and efficiency.

Take for example, single-use plastic coffee pods, which a recent MIT Technology Review article described as one of the ‘10 worst technologies of the 21st century,’ because they are not easily recyclable or biodegradable.

Modern synthetic plastics were invented around 100 years ago and appreciated for many decades as a big convenience. From cups, straws, takeout containers to medicine packaging and water bottles, plastics have permeated every aspect of our lives. Plastic packaging seems to offer the kind of convenience demanded by today’s modern consumer societies. However, the convenience offered by plastics has come back to haunt us.

To this day, only about 9% of all the plastics produced worldwide has been recycled, according to a 2017 study. The rest has either been incinerated, or ended up in landfills or in our oceans.

Most plastics being non-biodegradable, they break down into tiny pieces known as microplastics that are no more than 5 mm in diameter. Single-use plastics and their resulting microplastics can  seep into groundwater and end up in oceans, creating complex and cascading problems. They are one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world today.

A 2017 study found that 83% of tap water samples from more than a dozen countries contain microplastics. Another study discovered that more than 90% of the world’s most popular bottled-water brands are polluted with microplastics.

Pharma Industry and Plastics

The pharmaceuticals and healthcare packaging industry makes extensive use of plastics, from blister packs and trays to caps, bottles and vials and pouches. To be sure, plastics help protect medicines from damage, keep ingredients safe and guard against contamination.

I believe it’s time the pharma industry took urgent steps to improve its environmental report card by reducing plastic packaging, which makes up the bulk of the waste generated by pharmacies. Although plastic packaging is sometimes necessary, often the amount of packaging used can be excessive.

Many pharmaceutical companies are rising to the challenge and going to great lengths to reduce the environmental fallout from their operations. However, we need to continually endeavour to incorporate more sustainable options such as developing eco-friendly packaging, using more recyclable material etc. For example, blister packs used for packaging tablets and capsules can be replaced with glass bottles.

As global concerns over environmental sustainability grow, more and more patients will demand eco-friendly products and packaging. The industry should be prepared to provide patients the choice.

Drug makers should do thorough research on the risks of their drugs to ecological systems and the environment. For chronic ailments, there should be an assessment of the impact of long term drug use on the environment.

Since pharmaceuticals is a highly regulated industry, there is also a need for regulatory authorities to reassess rules in the light of current environmental concerns. Where needed, regulations should be relaxed so as not to add to the already rising ecological burden.

Environmental sustainability is everyone’s responsibility, and the pharmaceuticals industry is no exception. In conclusion, we need to achieve the fine balance between providing safe and effective care for patients and being environmentally conscious.


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