Modern consumers are more conscious about their health than they have been for generations. This was already beginning before the pandemic, with the move toward vegan and alternative diets together with the emergence of wearable healthcare devices that can track blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs.

But the Covid-19 crisis blew the lid on the impact of nutrition, exercise, sleep and other everyday human activities in physical and mental health and wellbeing. In addition, stay-at-home mandates together with the relaxing of certain regulation fuelled the growth of telehealth, virtual diagnostics and prescription delivery services, which have become integrated into the ‘new normal’.

Online retail giants Amazon and Walmart have led the growth in global medicine ecommerce over the past few years. According to analysis by GlobalData, online share of prescription and non-prescription healthcare products in North America has grown from 8% in 2019 to 12.5% in 2023.  By 2027, online share worldwide will be 11% – up from 6% in 2019. Patient acceptance of digital healthcare is also on the rise.  A GlobalData poll conducted in March through news sites Pharmaceutical Technology, Clinical Trials Arena, Medical Device Network, and Hospital Management websites showed thatmore than half of the 283 respondents said they would attend a telehealth appointment in the metaverse.

Virtual reality-enabled doctor consultations are still a way off, with challenges like data privacy to surmount. But the trajectory is clear. GlobalData estimates the metaverse economy will be worth US $400 billion by 2030 as more people spend more time online and using VR headsets to have immersive virtual experiences. Healthcare businesses are responding to the new order. For example, in 2022, US pharmacy chain CVS applied to trademark its logo and all of its pharmacy and health clinics in the metaverse.

So, ecommerce and digital patient care is on the rise, but what about patient requirements in terms of what they want from over-the-counter medication? Has the pandemic shaken up preferences here as well?

Softgel capsule innovator Sofgen Pharmaceuticals, a leading Latin America CDMO to the pharmaceutical industry says customer requirements with regard to capsule formats, formulations and categories are also changing in a few significant ways.

Rosella Del Vecchio, marketing director at Sofgen Pharmaceuticals highlights some of these below:

‘One dose per day’

Patients are looking for products that can satisfy the concept of ‘one dose’ or ‘one per day’ which guarantees that several ingredients are contained in one dose. This trend can also be attributed to growing pill fatigue as patients have more prescription medicine to take and they get tired of washing down multiple pills every day.

New combinations

As convenience has become even more of a purchasing driver, brands are looking at creating new combinations that can address multiple health concerns (sleep aids and pain for example or sleep aids and flu medicine) in novel and appealing dosage forms. Efficacy at relieving and managing pain and discomfort is critical in OTC medications.

Active ingredients

We are seeing growing interest in products with active ingredients. For example, acetaminophen (paracetamol) or propionic acids (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs).  Consumers are looking for formulations that can provide long-lasting and quick symptom relief. Natural claims in OTC are important for consumers interested in natural and traditional remedies, especially when addressing parents and long-term ailments. But it’s necessary to demonstrate product efficacy when including natural ingredients. Formulations that combine familiar active ingredients with natural ingredients are growing in appeal.

The pursuit of total wellbeing

Preventative healthcare has been gaining recognition since the pandemic. There has been a huge amount of information circulated through mainstream media outlets and social media channels over the past few years about maintaining good physical and mental health through nutrition, lowering stress and anxiety and the serious impact of lack of sleep. Stress, anxiety and exhaustion can exacerbate existing conditions and make pain worse, for example, by causing an arthritis or Crohns flare-up.

More consumers understand the link between lifestyle and feelings of pain and discomfort and they feel empowered to be proactive about their health, seeking out products, services, and solutions that are unique to their individual needs so that they can be more productive at work and avoid falling ill as far as possible.  OTC remedies can help decrease stress and encourage mindfulness and relaxation and these are growing in demand in line with holistic wellness trends.

Convenience, enjoyment and efficacy

Convenience is a priority for consumers. Companies must offer easy-to-use products, but also those that give their customers optimum satisfaction through texture, mouthfeel and flavour. Getting children to take medicines is very difficult, especially when the product is a pill. In a study from 2008, results showed that 30% to 40% of young people had rejected or refused a pill or liquid formulation and more than 50% were unable to swallow a standard-size pill or small capsule.

Dysphagia, or swallowing difficulty, affects about 13.5% of the general population but is more common in seniors, affecting 19% to 33% of individuals older than 80 years of age and up to 50% of individuals living in a nursing home. Our R&D is focused on developing our chewable soft capsule technology so that our capsules are easy to swallow. We also focus on making our capsules enjoyable and convenient through varying the plasticiser, the gelatine source, the capsule shell thickness or using alternative materials that provide a satisfying chew.

R&D focus at Sofgen Pharmaceuticals

Del Vecchio explains that the success of developing chewable soft capsules for OTC applications depends on a number of different factors, some that are critical for the end consumer and some that are critical for the retailer.   

“Taste masking and flavour are some of the more significant challenges in these types of products, because they are used to mask the taste of active ingredients. Some of the techniques used for this purpose are microencapsulation, flavour layering, complexations, among others. Improving the bioavailability of the active ingredients is also a priority. Chewable forms sometimes increase the absorption of an API and we are working to optimise this further.

“Making the production of chewable soft capsules more cost-effective without compromising the quality of the product is a constant challenge and focus for Sofgen Pharmaceuticals, as is meeting all safety and efficacy guidelines for OTC applications.”