US orders pharmaceutical firms to barcode all hospital drugs

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has mandated that pharmaceutical companies put barcodes on all drugs...

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has mandated that pharmaceutical companies put barcodes on all drugs dispensed in hospitals, with the aim of reducing medication errors.

Though the regulations apply only to drug manufacturers and not hospitals, as a practical matter hospital pharmacists and suppliers expect widespread use of barcode readers, and networks will be needed to support them. 

The new barcode regulations, issued yesterday by the Food and Drug Administration, mandate the use of the National Drug Code, which identifies the type of medication and the dose. They will go into effect three years after the FDA publishes its final rules, which are expected later this year, after the agency assesses comments filed in the next 90 days. 

The FDA said it expected the rules to eliminate 413,000 medication errors during the next 20 years by using technology to ensure that the right patient receives the right drug in the right dose at the right time. 

Hospitals will have to bear a hefty financial burden to deploy the barcode technology, with the FDA estimating the cost at $7.2bn. Steve Schou, director of worldwide health care markets at Symbol Technologies, estimated that close to $1bn of that would come from spending on wireless Lan technology to provide connectivity for nurses dispensing drugs at a patient's bedside.

Schou said the barcode readers could function in a batch or disconnected mode, but he added that Wlans will be the best way to manage the system. In batch mode, the reader remains unconnected to a network until the user hooks it up. Users can update information on several patients and their prescriptions at one time. 

Steve Rough, director of the Pharmacy Service Organization at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinic, agreed with Schou, saying batch mode does not provide nurses with real-time information, a key to medication management. 

The University of Wisconsin started deploying a medication management system, Admin-Rx from McKesson, in December 2001. That system incorporates barcodes and, according to Rough, will revolutionise patient care and safety. Rough said the hospital has experienced an 87% reduction in the number of medication errors. 

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