16 Nov 2017
Scrawled, illegible doctors’ handwriting on patients’ forms and prescriptions is the subject of many a joke, but the laughter rings hollow when mistakes are made and patient safety is compromised, or unnecessary medication costs begin to add up.
The volume, complexity, confidentiality and critical nature of much of the information circulating in modern hospitals demands that a better way be found to share it. The answer, for more and more healthcare facilities, lies in bar coding.
Bar coding means that positive patient ID (or PPID) is now an achievable goal. We have all heard horror stories of patients having the wrong limb amputated or a healthy kidney removed in error. Bar code wrist bands are more efficient and greatly reduce the risk of patient misidentification. This is especially important in cases where a patient may be incapacitated or unresponsive, and unable to communicate with medical staff.
Bar codes are more legible than anyone’s handwriting, and can be used to convey more information. They are also secret, in the sense that a patient’s details and medical records will only be accessible to authorised personnel with the correct scanners.
Patients are not the only thing that hospitals need to keep track of. Samples for testing can also be labelled with bar codes, making them instantly identifiable and ensuring that they can be traced. Depending on the substrate, printed bar codes are also more durable than pen and paper notes, which is important given how ‘messy’ hospital environments can sometimes be.
After several high-profile cases of patients being intentionally harmed by carers, in both Germany and the UK, bar codes also have a role to play in hospital security. Bar code ID tags can identify and record who has been into which ward and when, or accessed which medication. These should be combined with photo ID so that colleagues and patients always have the reassurance of knowing who they are talking to.
Modern hospitals contain many valuable assets which could have a resale value, or which could cause real problems in the wrong hands, or if used incorrectly. Prescription medications are the obvious example.
Labelling each medication with a bar code means that it can be instantly identified, and makes inventory management and auditing much easier and quicker. It may not completely prevent theft, but it does mean that the crime will be detected far sooner, and that the culprit is much more likely to be apprehended.
Despite these clear advantages of using bar coding technology in hospital scenarios, it has not yet been prescribed for every healthcare facility. Administrators and management cite initial hardware and software costs as a primary concern, as well as the perceived difficulty of integrating bar coding with existing systems.
Worries are also expressed over staff resistance to change, and the possibility of people making data entry errors. While this human factor cannot be ignored, it should be remembered that bar coding greatly reduces the potential for human error. This of course is vital in circumstances where mistakes can cost lives.
Although bar coding and the resulting certainty is bad news for writers of TV medical dramas, it could just be the cure the rest of us have been needing. After all, ER should be a place where you go for treatment, not the sound of a nurse trying to decipher a consultant’s hieroglyphics.
30 Mar 2020
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