Pile of medication

Hospitals Taking Lessons from the Checkout Counter

We've all seen barcodes at work, but probably not at hospitals. Yet, barcode systems could help reduce medical errors and save lives.


Despite best intentions, honest mistakes happen. But when they happen in a hospital, the outcomes for patients can be dangerous, and even fatal.

Could something as simple as a barcode system help reduce preventable medical errors?

The idea works like this: when a doctor orders a prescription, a blood transfusion, a surgical operation, or any type of medical procedure, it gets entered into an electronic system. When it comes time to execute the order, a barcode on the order is scanned and checked against a barcode on the patient’s wristband. If it’s the wrong item, the wrong dose, the wrong patient, or the wrong timing, the healthcare professional is warned of the mismatch.

This is especially important for critically ill patients, who tend to have the most medical interventions prescribed, and who are the least equipped to bounce back from an adverse reaction to a medical error.

The US Food and Drug Administration ordered most prescription drugs to be barcoded down to the individual dose level in 2004. Canada’s transition to a standard barcode system for prescription drugs is still underway.

When University Hospital in London, Canada implemented a barcode system on its prescription drugs in 2014, the new protocol reduced 24 manual checks through a chain of healthcare workers down to eight electronic checks.

The hospital dispenses an astounding 6.8 million doses of medication a year. That’s equivalent to a dose every five seconds, around the clock.

After implementing the barcode system, medication errors fell by 30 percent. And beyond detecting errors at the bedside, the system makes an objective record of when errors are most likely to occur, which could lead to better alerts and checks overall.

A digitized system also reduces errors introduced when interpreting handwritten notes, especially given that many very different drugs can have similar names.

Beyond medication, Canada is looking to expand the system to include other items, such as automated checks to ensure that all tools are accounted for after a surgery, and alerts to remind healthcare professionals of routine tasks like turning patients to prevent bed sores.

A digitized system still won’t be perfect, and errors can still happen. But with a well-designed system and proper training, this approach could help narrow the gap.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.