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Bar codes: Reducing medication errors in hospitals

Dangerous and costly medication errors come in many scary varieties, such as administering the wrong drug, or in the wrong dose, or at the wrong time. There are a lot of nightmarish scenarios built into that list of variables, and when one or more goes wrong, the results can include patient suffering and additional financial costs.

Effective packaging, though — specifically bar codes — can cut them way down. That's why the Food and Drug Administration required them for some human drug and biological products that are "dispensed pursuant to an order and are commonly used in hospitals." The bar codes need to contain, at least, the drug's National Drug Code number and similar identifying information for biological products. The rule became effective back in April 2004 but gave companies two years to comply for existing drug products.

Adding bar codes to the medications allows them to be more easily coordinated with patient records and doctors' orders. It also allows easier confirmation that, "the right drug (in the right dose and right route of administration) is being given to the right patient at the right time," according to the FDA.

Do they work? Try this on for size: One hospital that implemented a bar-code system reduced its medication errors by 80%, another by 71%. One Veterans Administration hospital, says the FDA, had zero medication errors with such a system, and the hospital estimates it prevented "over 378,000 medication errors in a five-year period." Results like that inspired the FDA to make bar codes mandatory for all hospitals. Look here for full details on the program, who must comply, and how. [HCP]

By Eric F. Greenberg, Attorney at Law

Eric F. Greenberg is attorney at law in his own law firm, Eric F. Greenberg, P.C., where he practices food and drug law, packaging law, and commercial litigation.
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