We all know what a pharmacy is: a place where we can obtain chemical products, which we call pharmaceuticals. Not long ago, these products were manufactured at the pharmacy. With the proper scientific advances and the development of modern manufacturing processes, the production of pharmaceuticals moved to dedicated factories. The pharmacy evolved into a place that mostly makes available such chemical products and helps people by counseling them. We are now at the beginning of a new transformation: the rise of 3D printing, which is reaching pharmaceuticals as well. The advantages of 3D printing lie in the flexibility it allows, making the dosage of a pill eventually different for each run of the printer and for the smaller scales of production that it allow. It becomes attractive to use it in treatments that need to be highly customized to the patients’ conditions. This may one day offer the possibility of decentralizing the production of pharmaceuticals back to the pharmacy, or even, let us say, home. For chronic patients that require a certain regular dosage, on a continuous base, they will produce their own medication with a 3D printer of the size of a Nespresso coffee machine, using raw components in a way similar to how current coffee capsules are utilized. Some guidance and supervision, or some sort of partnership between physicians and pharmacists, may be present as well. For more common products, but infrequently used by each patient, the pharmacy will be able to produce locally what is demanded by patients (either by filling a prescription or with an over-the-counter purchase). The potential of polypills (which currently concentrate different pills into a single one, according to the needs of each patient) is also to be explored. But some pharmaceuticals’ production is unlikely to change, given that bulk production and reaping economies of scale are central. For example, Aspirin is unlikely to be printed at home, it would just cost too much, even if 3D-printing becomes cheap.
The technology for “printing” pharmaceutical pills is just starting and it is still not predictable which type of technology will prevail (as several ideas for doing this are being explored by different companies).
This will change economic relationships. It will prompt one more evolution in the pharmacy retail business, challenge the health systems’ management (ensuring safety and quality of 3D-printed drugs, co-payment systems, etc.), the pharmaceutical companies (which will likely be more dedicated to R&D and less to production), the wholesale distribution (to include capsules/cartridges that will be used in 3D-printers), doctors, pharmacists, patients and emergent new players. These new players can be 3D-printer developers, creators of artificial intelligence algorithms (that will help define the customized drug), or professionals that may help make the connection between the new technology and the physicians to explain the treatment possibilities and alternatives. Pharmacies in the era of 3D-printing may become more similar to older pharmacies than to current ones in some ways. Health systems and economical and management relationships will be quite different, though.
BPI | Fundação “la Caixa” Professor of Health Economics, Nova School of Business and EconomicsWebsite
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