Improving pharmaceutical fridges

Associate Professor Rodney Adank from Ngā Pae Māhutonga School of Design and his team are researching ways to improve pharmaceutical fridges, a vital part of the cold chain used by pharmacies, hospitals, doctors’ offices and laboratories.

Many pharmaceutical drugs, vaccines and speciality treatments are temperature-sensitive. The cold chain is a process used to maintain these products within the required temperature range at all times during transport and storage. ‘It’s a quality management system, with very specific objectives and constraints,’ says Associate Professor Rodney Adank from Ngā Pae Māhutonga School of Design. ‘The cold chain has a lot of procedures, processes and regulations around how things are stored and managed, and if equipment or the process slip outside of the practice, that’s when breaches can occur.’

Together with colleagues Jason Mitchell and Associate Professor Wyatt Page, and in partnership with the Centre of Clinical Excellence at Capital, Coast and Hutt Valley (Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand), Associate Professor Adank is researching ways to improve pharmaceutical fridges, a vital part of the cold chain used by pharmacies, hospitals, doctors’ offices and laboratories.

Reducing cold-chain breaches through better-quality products

Professor Adank and his research team

From left: Richie Perry, Daniel Harmsworth, graduate student Leslie Meadows, postgraduate student Sarah Lakomy, Associate Professor Wyatt Page, Senior lecturer Jason Mitchell and Associate Professor Rodney Adank.

‘Pharmaceutical fridges that store these really valuable vaccines and medicines are actually quite rudimentary,’ says Associate Professor Adank. ‘You would expect more from a modern domestic refrigerator in terms of user experience, and how they manage what’s being stored inside, than you would from pharmaceutical fridges. Currently, there are few features in the fridges to help facilitate best practice,’ he adds. ‘There are processes that are quite stringent in terms of placing items a certain distance apart for airflow and temperature control. But there’s not really any software or features to help categorise or organise fridge contents, so people rely on an ad hoc method of storage and organisation.’

The simplicity of pharmaceutical fridges means that maintaining the cold chain when using them relies heavily on staff managing equipment correctly and sticking to the exact procedure. ‘It puts a lot of pressure on medical staff to monitor, maintain, check, arrange, re-check and reorganise,’ says Associate Professor Adank. ‘It takes quite a lot of their time, and I would think it would create quite a bit of anxiety if you were a practice nurse or a pharmacist and you were part of a cold-chain breach where you could lose thousands of dollars of vaccines. It’s our goal to investigate the main touch points along the way that are affecting drug efficacy in relation to storage and access, to avoid potential breaches.’

So far, Associate Professor Adank and Mitchell have found that the temperature range within fridges varies and is difficult to track. Therefore, one of the first things they are investigating is the temperature in different regions throughout pharmaceutical fridges. ‘This will give us a reference point to measure the progress of design solutions,’ says Mitchell.

Some design improvements are already evident. ‘When fridge doors are opened, cold air just drops out, affecting the internal temperature across the fridge,’ he says. ‘From a design point of view, you immediately wonder about using drawers instead of doors, so that everything else stays at the same temperature. Thermal bridging is another issue, where medicines touch the side of the fridge which is a lot colder than in the central area,’ he adds. ‘When fridges are well stocked, medicines can be moved into contact and this is a focus for design innovation. Current concepts that respond to this issue are being developed.’

‘The project gives us an opportunity to design into an area that has benefits for the community, and has some real impact,’ says Associate Professor Adank. ‘It is going to save money, reduce pressure on staff at the hospital, and make them more efficient. Potentially, we could improve the efficacy of drugs and reduce the amount of cold-chain breaches through having better-quality products supporting our health professionals. That’s our whole focus. We’re working with the lead cold-chain expert and quality-management staff as well, so we’ve got a really nice team for this project. We think one of the strengths is that we’re collaborating with the experts in the field and that allows design to create meaningful impact on the health and wellbeing of our communities.’

UN Sustainable Development Goals

Rodney Adank

Learn more about the researcher reducing cold-chain breaches through better-quality pharmaceutical fridges.