FDA Says Bar Coding Saves Lives

May 2003 -- Hospitals nationwide may soon be taking a cue from your local grocery store. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed supermarket-style bar codes on every medication administered to hospital patients to reduce medication errors.

The proposed rule would apply to prescription drugs (excluding physician samples) and to over-the-counter drugs that are commonly used in hospitals and dispensed pursuant to an order. For blood and blood components, the proposal would require the use of machine-readable information in a format approved by the Director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

The proposed rule does not contain exemptions or exceptions (other than physician samples of prescription drugs and OTC drugs not used in the hospital) because FDA believes that all drug product labels can carry a bar code. However, the preamble to the proposed rule invites comment on whether any drugs should be exempt and the reasons for an exemption.

Bar code technology is already used at about 2 percent of US hospitals. But the FDA's latest proposal calls for 100 percent compliance, saying patient safety is at stake.

Before administering a drug, a nurse scans the bar code on apatients' ID bracelet, along with a bar code found on the medication itself. Then, the computer/PDA checks the medication against a patient's record to see if a patient is supposed to be getting that drug. If the scan yields a match, the nurse knows it's okay to precede. A error warning, tells the nurse something isn't right.


The Institute of Medicine reports that anywhere from 48,000 to 98,000 patients die each year due to medical errors. The FDA says bar coding can reduce these numbers. Bar coding has already been implemented at all U.S. Veterans hospitals, where officials have since reported a decrease in medication errors. The FDA is encouraging private health centers across the country to follow suit.


Video news release on the proposed U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) use of bar codes on every medication administered to hospital patients to reduce medication errors.

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Additional Reading:

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Researchers have found that a new computer system that uses bar codes to safeguard patients' medications will work successfully, but not without creating new, serious problems for nurses charged with patient care.


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