FLAVORx Inc. has spent two decades helping children's medicine go down a bit more easily.
The Columbia-based company, which makes solutions that add flavor to liquid drugs, offers its products in about 45,000 pharmacies. But the company has found pharmacists often lack the time to add the flavors.
Now the firm has released what it believes is breakthrough technology designed to save time while improving dispensing accuracy. The "FlavorMaster," billed as the first fully automated device of its kind, can add flavor as well as water to reconstitute powdered medicine.
The machine features touch-screen operation and compartments for water and about 15 flavors such as bubble gum and sour apple. It's already getting a tryout from CVS Health at a pharmacy in Elkridge.
"You can choose how you want your medicine to taste," said Chad Baker, FLAVORx's senior vice president and general manager for chain pharmacy. "It's something a child likes and takes ownership of. … The goal is to ideally have this in every pharmacy across the country."
Children are given liquid medications until they are able to swallow pills, but about half of the children who need to take medicines to manage chronic illness fail to adhere to their prescriptions, Baker said. They may refuse to take a medicine or spit it out.
"When they get to choose and pick a flavor, that goes to 90 percent," he said. "Not all medicine tastes horrible, but once you have a bad experience with a bad-tasting medicine, it lingers."
Experts believe one of the biggest barriers to kids taking medicine as prescribed is related to taste, said Jill Morgan, a pediatric pharmacist and associate professor and chair of the department of pharmacy practice and science at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore.
"A lot of medicine tastes very bitter, and we think that kids have a stronger sense of taste," Morgan said.
Systems such as FLAVORx help pharmacists, who in the past have advised young patients to suck on ice cubes to numb taste buds or to counteract bitter tastes with chocolate sauce, she said.
"The idea of flavoring has been around a long time, but this is the first time pharmacists have a system inside their pharmacies that gives them something to offer up to the parents, and it gives children a choice of flavor," Morgan said. "Anything we can do to help children tolerate their medicine is important in order to help treat their illnesses."
FLAVORx and sister company Fillmaster Systems, which makes pharmaceutical reconstitution equipment, developed the FlavorMaster over three years and expect to begin larger scale manufacturing in May, Baker said.
CVS Health began testing one of the automated units in its Elkridge store on Tuesday, said Amy Lanctot, a CVS spokeswoman. Lanctot declined to comment on how such units might benefit the pharmacies.
"This test just started, and we are not at a point where we can discuss results or expectations," she said in an email.
FLAVORx got its start after an independent pharmacist in Washington came up with the idea of custom-flavoring medicines while trying to help his infant granddaughter. The girl, who had epilepsy, struggled to swallow her anti-seizure medicine. But she had no problems taking a flavored version.
While antibiotics such as amoxicillin and Augmentin are the most commonly flavored drugs, almost any liquid medication can be flavored. Patients are charged a $2 to $3 fee per medication for FLAVORx, a cost that's not covered by insurance.
"It's a relatively low price to pay for peace of mind," said Stuart R. Amos, president and CEO of FLAVORx and Fillmaster Systems, which sells water purification systems to pharmacies.
Amos said he expects the new technology to be attractive to pharmacies, and the company has placed an initial order for more than 1,000 units. Manufacturing, which will be done in Maryland, is expected to lead to about 10 to 25 new jobs, "depending on how successful the product is."
The company declined to disclose how much the FlavorMaster costs or release information about its revenue. FLAVORx has doubled in size over the past three years and now employs about 50 people. Its products are carried in about 90 percent of chain drugstores and some independent pharmacies.
The automated system is designed to replace the process of pharmacists or technicians looking up recipes, following instructions and manually adding solutions to drugs and mixing them.
"It takes time to do this," Baker said. "Pharmacists are just so strapped for time these days."
The FlavorMaster uses a bar code reader that enables the machine to dispense the precise amount of water needed to reconstitute a particular medication. It can be programmed to dispense only water, or water and a flavor.
Baltimore Sun reporter Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.