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The Visible Value Blog

Wising up – not dumbing down to improve patient safety

Posted by Zebra EMEA

December 5, 2013 at 5:40 AM


Barcodes on drugs? Whatever for? They’re already labelled, aren’t they?

And barcodes on patients? It’s so impersonal. They shouldn’t be treated as though they were tins of baked beans.

And what about the medical staff scanning those barcodes? These are trained people. They shouldn’t be made to feel as though they’re reduced to operating a supermarket checkout, surely?

For some observers, increasing the use of auto-ID technology in healthcare can seem a bit, well, clinical. It’s thought barcoding might dehumanise the approach to patients, create distance between them and the staff who help them, and demean the intelligence and training of qualified medical practitioners. In short, it’s sometimes seen as dumbing down.


In fact, using this technology in healthcare is anything but impersonal and patronising, and the fact that barcodes on patient wristbands hasn’t yet been made compulsory is no reason to delay their introduction. For one thing, the legislation is now looming large – but more importantly, it makes absolute and practical sense. That’s why it’s backed by bodies including the NHS in both England and Wales, and it’s why in 2011 the Information Standards Board for the Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) approved the inclusion of a GS1 barcode on the patient wristband.

The benefits are considerable, not least in the correct identification of patients. Data gathered by the National Reporting and Learning Service (NRLS) showed that over the course of 12 months ending in January 2007, almost 12% of patients receiving the wrong care did so because of errors involving wristbands.

The barcode not only correctly identifies the patient, but can be used to ‘unlock’ access to that patient’s records and the treatment he or she should be receiving.

Similarly, barcoding medicines gives every individual packet a unique ID, making it much harder for falsified or counterfeit drugs to enter the system and likewise making it much simpler to trace back suspect pharmaceuticals through the supply chain to their likely source.

It’s a big problem: in 2010 it was reported that 20% of drugs could be fake, and earlier this year the Falsified Medicines Directive came into force in Europe to prevent the entry of such products into the legal supply chain.

There are other advantages to barcoding medicines. Importantly, it makes their use and efficacy easier to monitor. Medical staff can chart prescriptions against outcomes for individual patients or groups of patients, adjusting treatments as they see fit. Rather than dumbing down, the information that sits behind the barcodes for patients and their medicines arms clinicians with knowledge, enabling them to make better judgements.

As in many other applications, so in healthcare too barcodes can help achieve several other important benefits, including streamlining processes, saving money, simplifying re-ordering and adding visibility to the supply chain.

But it’s important to acknowledge healthcare is not really like many other applications. It’s one of the most important disciplines we have. It’s about life, health and wellbeing – and that’s why using a technology that guards aganst error, reduces risk and facilitates improvements in practice has got to be good news.

Dumbing down? Far from it. In using barcode technology, healthcare professionals are showing quite how wise they are. 

Have a look at our solutions for patient safety and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear your opinions. 

Topics: Healthcare, Patient Safety, Identification, ZebraEMEA,, APAC, North America, Latin America, EMEA