NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Drug Bar Coding

March 16, 2004

Cans of soup and boxes of cereal have bar codes scanned by supermarkets. But doses of medicine typically are dispensed at hospitals without this basic technology - and the results are deadly. Each year, some 770,000 patients have adverse reactions because of medication errors, and 7,000 of them die.

Now, the Food and Drug Administration is requiring pharmaceutical companies to start phasing in bar codes on most drugs used in hospitals. Patients with bar-coded bracelets will be matched to their prescriptions by computerized scanners. Preventable deaths could be cut in half, and nearly 500,000 complications could be eliminated over 20 years, the FDA says. That's no idle estimate, says USA Today. Bar coding has a proven track record of making sure the right patient gets the right drug and dosage at the right time:

  • A Veterans Administration medical center in Topeka reduced its medication error rate by 85 percent during five years, and all VA hospitals have used bar coding since 1997.
  • By contrast, only 2 percent of U.S. hospitals have bedside scanning systems.

Why this stall on technology that clearly saves lives? Blame a frustrating Catch-22.

  • Hospitals have been slow to buy the equipment, which costs about $1 million, because most medications don't currently have codes affixed to them.
  • But drug makers didn't want to retool their production lines to put bar codes on single-unit doses until more hospitals used them.

Bar coding initially will add to health care costs. Still, the payoff in reduced patient suffering, needless hospital stays and lawsuits over drug errors makes it an essential investment in the future. The FDA estimates medical savings could total $93 billion during the next 20 years.

Preventing errors is a moral imperative, but ultimately, it's also good business, says USA Today.

Source: Editorial, "A cure for drug ills," USA Today, March 16, 2004.

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