Technology & Science

Bar-coded pills proposed for hospitals, pharmacies

A Canadian patient safety group is proposing to use the bar-coding technology found in supermarkets to prevent drug dispensing errors.

A Canadian patient safety group is proposing to use the bar-coding technology found at supermarket checkouts to prevent drug dispensing errors.

Every year, it's estimated that medication errors affect more than one million patients each year, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Of this group, more than 700 patients die every year in Canada as a result of preventable medication mistakes.

Health-care workers make such mistakes at hospitals and pharmacies every day, said Carol Kushner of the group Patients for Patient Safety Canada.

"It's not a matter of being bad practitioners," said Kushner. "It's a matter of needing to redesign the system so that human error is prevented."

The group's plan is to use bar-coding technology in hospitals and in pharmacies.

On Wednesday, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and groups involved in manufacturing, distributing and dispensing medications launched a national project to promote automated drug identification in Canada using a global bar-coding standard.

"With over 30,000 commercial drug products in the marketplace, there is a significant and overdue need for a co-ordinated approach to bar coding pharmaceuticals," said David U, president and CEO of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices in Canada.

The errors can happen in part since pills look alike and often have similar names, said Neil MacKinnon, a medication safety researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax. A nurse using a scanner could reduce the potential for human error.

"She could scan the medication and scan that patient's bar code on their hospital ID on their arm, and then suddenly we have a very accurate documentation that the medication was given," MacKinnon said.

Merck Pharmaceuticals plans to have all of its products barcoded by next spring, but only the country's largest teaching hospitals have the equipment to read them, said Jimmy Ghadiali,  senior product manager in anesthesia for Merck.