Bar Code Technology Could Help Curb Drug Errors at Hospitals

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Bar code technology could help hospitals reduce the increasing number of medication errors, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Instances in which a patient is injured after receiving the wrong medication or dosage from a hospital have doubled in the last 10 years, and at least 1.5 million U.S. residents are involved in such incidents each year.

Serious injuries reported to FDA because of hospital drug errors have increased from about 35,000 in 1998 to about 90,000 in 2005, according to a report in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. Deaths from the cases tripled during the time period with 5,000 in 1998 to 15,000 in 2005. The errors are usually caused when:

  • Pharmacists stock drugs improperly;
  • Nurses neglect to double-check treatments; or
  • Physicians write the medication order illegibly.

Albert Wu, a professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University, said, "Errors are disturbingly common," adding, "The health care system has to take a step back and invest more in research and improving patient safety. Until it does, these kinds of incidents will keep happening." Wu added that errors are so common because the U.S. is a "medication society" in which four out of five residents take at least one drug weekly.

One possible solution is using a system in which the drugs are labeled with a bar code that is swiped and run through a computer system that checks the dosage and medication, the Times reports.

FDA requires drug manufacturers to place bar codes on the packaging of medications and most do it, according to Allen Vaida, executive vice president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. However, fewer than 20% of U.S. hospitals have installed the bar code systems to read the labels, Vaida said (Lin/Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, 11/22).


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