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Healthcare Packaging Validation: Assuring Patient Safety

November 28, 2023|BY: Rob Helmke

Healthcare Packaging Safety
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Sterile medical packaging plays a vital role in protecting patients from harmful bacteria and viruses. However, many processes can damage the integrity of sterile packaging as products move through the supply chain. Improper sterilization techniques, mishandling during shipping, and other mishaps can degrade packaging and cause loss of sterility. Regulatory agencies require all sterile packaging to undergo packaging validation to prevent these issues. 

Packaging validation confirms that medical packaging maintains sterility and barrier integrity throughout the product’s lifetime. Federal regulations and industry standards require manufacturers to conduct validation testing before releasing products. This guide provides an in-depth look at packaging validation regulations, processes, and testing methods. 

Packaging Validation 101

Packing validation ensures that healthcare manufacturers use proper packaging systems and sterilization methods throughout the manufacturing process. Packaging systems encase a broad range of sterile medical devices, including catheters, syringes, and surgical equipment. These systems consist of two parts: 

  • Sterile Barrier System: This system allows penetration by sterilants, such as ethylene oxide gas and gamma radiation. After sterilization, the material maintains the microbial barrier to prevent new germs from entering the packaging. This barrier can also be opened and presented aseptically in operating rooms and other healthcare settings. 
  • Protective Packaging: This packaging protects the sterile barrier system from damage. Examples of protective packaging include clamshells, pouches, and trays. 

Many sterilization and packaging processes can harm the sterile barrier system. For example, some polymer-based packaging materials will degrade and lose sterility if the manufacturer uses an inappropriate level of gamma radiation. Sterile barriers can also get damaged during assembly processes like cutting, capping, and sealing. 

Packaging validation evaluates the performance of sterile barriers throughout manufacturing and distribution. This testing protects patient health by ensuring that products remain free of contaminants. 

Regulatory Requirements and Standards

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) oversees medical device package testing in the United States. The FDA has established numerous performance and safety standards for sterile medical packaging. 

According to FDA regulations, manufacturers must test every batch or lot of sterile medical products to guarantee that the packaging maintains sterility during the entire shelf life. Additionally, the FDA requires companies to conduct stability testing to ensure that the sterile barrier remains intact when the packaging gets exposed to high temperatures, humidity, and other environmental factors. 

The International Organization for Standardization has also established global package validation requirements for medical devices. ISO 11607-2: 2019 provides guidelines for developing and validating sterile medical packaging systems. These regulations cover forming, sealing, and assembly processes. 

Key Components of Packaging Validation

Effective packaging validation strategies include these key components: 

  • Appropriate Validation Methods: Validation requirements for materials and sterilization methods vary. For instance, ISO 11137-2 mandates that manufacturers use bioburden-based validation methods for packaging sterilized with radiation. 
  • Adequate Sample Size: Most manufacturers use sample sizes of 3,000 units or less to assess sterility with reasonable confidence. 
  • Documentation: Manufacturers should thoroughly document each validation testing stage to demonstrate their results to regulatory agencies. 
  • Reproducibility: The sterility testing should return the same results across batches and time. 

Package Design and Material Selection

The validation process starts with selecting the right packaging for your product. Here are a few essential factors to consider: 

  • Functionality: The features you want to implement will influence your packaging design. For instance, blister packaging can make medications and medical devices tamper-resistant, while trays can stack for efficient transportation. 
  • Materials: Packaging materials have various characteristics, shapes, and sterilization requirements. Common plastics used to create thermoformed medical device packaging include PVC, PETG, HIPS, and Tritan. 
  • Customization: Some medical devices have unique shapes, sizes, or properties that require exclusive packaging, while others fit into standard packaging containers. 
  • Market: The end user of your medical device can impact the design. For example, older patients may need easy-to-open blister packets for their medications, while nurses may require spill-resistant packaging for surgical instruments. 

A thermoforming expert at Plastic Ingenuity can help you choose the perfect packaging design and materials. 

Packaging Validation Process

The FDA and ISO 11607 require manufacturers to conduct validation testing in several areas, including: 

  • Accelerated AgingThese tests examine the sterile integrity of packaging materials over an accelerated period of time. The FDA uses this data to determine the product’s shelf life.  
  • Microbial Barrier IntegrityBioburden tests determine if sterile packaging for medical devices resists microbial penetration. 
  • Seal StrengthSeals between flexible barriers and rigid materials must remain intact under pressure. 
  • Shipping SimulationThe manufacturer should test packaging materials in simulated distribution scenarios to guarantee that they can withstand hazards that may occur during transportation. 

Additionally, manufacturers must provide the FDA with detailed information about the processing of sterile medical devices, including disinfection, storage, and transportation. 

Testing Methods for Packaging Validation

Packaging validation requirements for medical devices vary depending on the material and sterilization method used. Common testing methods include: 

  • Bubble Emission TestThis test immerses the packaging under water and applies gentle pressure. The tester conducts a visual inspection for bubbles that indicate leaks in the packaging. 
  • Dye Penetration TestingThis simple assessment uses a dyed liquid like alcohol or water to test the packaging for leaks. 
  • Microbial Challenge TestingA sealed package is immersed in a bacterial suspension or sprayed with an aerosol mist filled with microorganisms. Next, the inside of the package is tested for microbial growth to determine if the sterile barrier has been breached. 

Ensuring Compliance and Patient Safety

The FDA enforces compliance with medical device packaging validation procedures. An inspector reviews each product to ensure the chosen sterilization process fits the packaging requirements. They also examine the validation studies to ensure that the manufacturer follows appropriate testing parameters and uses properly calibrated equipment. 

Packaging validation protects patients and providers from healthcare-associated infections and other risks associated with non-sterile medical devices. 

Partner With Plastic Ingenuity for Comprehensive Packaging Validation

Packaging validation is a complex but necessary process that keeps patients healthy. Manufacturers can ensure their medical device packaging remains sterile by choosing the proper materials, sterilization methods, and testing protocols. Fortunately, you don’t have to go through all these steps alone. Plastic Ingenuity is a leading manufacturer of thermoformed healthcare packaging. Our ISO 13485-certified team has decades of experience developing innovative packaging that complies with the latest regulations and validation testing techniques. Get in touch to learn how collaborating with Plastic Ingenuity can help you get your product to market quickly and safely.

Medical Review: Trager Hintze, PharmD