Barcodes ‘Improve Patient Safety’

Patient safety could be improved if hospitals tagged people with barcodes, the Government said on Thursday. Lord Hunt, the minister for quality, urged the NHS to consider the technology after trials showed that the number of errors could be cut.

Staff use a barcode reader to “zap” a bar-coded wristband worn by the patient. It means that staff can identify a patient at any time, and acts as an “extra check” before medication is given.

Lord Hunt said many errors were caused by wrongly identifying patients, which cost the NHS £2bn a year because people had to stay in hospital longer. In his report, Coding for Success, he says: “Using coding to manage supplies and purchasing electronically can cut costs dramatically as well as improving efficiency.”

Auto-identification and data capture (AIDC) is an umbrella term covering a range of technologies. These include barcodes, smart cards, biometrics and radio frequency identification (RFID).

The Government has signed a contract with the company GS1 UK, which makes the technology, to support hospitals that want to be involved on a voluntary basis. The system has been in trials at Birmingham Heartlands NHS Trust, which said it had saved £270,000 a year due to the system.

David Morgan, a consultant surgeon at Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, pioneered the use of RFID. He said: “Since using the system, the staff have been able to spend more time with the patients due to less paperwork, and patient safety has greatly increased.”

Michael Summer, chairman of the Patients Association, welcomed the move. “We think this should be approved and rolled out because it’s going to benefit patients and improve safety. There have been examples of patients having the wrong limbs removed and the wrong drugs being given and so this will give added protection.”