Some pharmacists rely on bar codes to help identify and track medications.

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How can a bar code save your life?

In our article How UPC Bar Codes Work, we describe a bar code as a graphic that a computer reads by passing a scanner over it and then decoding the bars into numbers. Universal Product Code (UPC) symbols are among the oldest and most widespread examples of bar codes. You can find UPC symbols on packaged products at retail stores.

Today, bar codes exist in more places than just retail stores. Many industries have discovered that scanning a bar code is much faster than entering information manually with a keyboard, and with fewer chances of mistakes. To use bar code technology, a business first sets up its computer system to associate specific codes with certain information, such as product prices or employee profiles. Then, the business can print bar codes and use scanners plus bar code deciphering software to retrieve the information associated with those bar codes from the computer system. For example, in the shipping industry, a bar code printed on a package's shipping label provides a quick way for the shipping company to track that package. The shipper's computers save new information about a package's journey each time it is scanned, such as what city it is in and whether it will arrive on schedule.

While bar codes sound like a convenience rather than a necessity, some uses of bar codes could help save your life. Typically, these bar codes help people retrieve information quickly or ensure that information is accurate. Let's take a look at some of these potentially life-saving uses for bar codes.

One such bar code application is in medical ID wristbands that patients wear when they're admitted to hospitals. These wristbands include a printed bar code in addition to other patient information. When doctors and nurses treat the patient anywhere in the hospital, they use a hand scanner to scan the bar code on the wristband. That scanner has its own view screen or is attached to another computer display. Through a connection to the hospital's computer systems, an electronic version of the patient's chart is opened. By using a bar code system for accessing charts, medical professionals can reduce a patient's risk of receiving the wrong, or even life-threatening, medications or procedures [source: General Data Company].

The bar codes used in hospitals aren't the only ones that circumvent serious health and safety threats. Next, let's look at some critical uses of bar codes on things like medicines and consumer goods.

A warehouse worker uses a bar code scanner on pallets.

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Bar codes to the Rescue

The pharmaceutical industry is starting to use bar codes to ensure authenticity of its products. The World Health Organization estimates that counterfeit drugs account for 10 percent of legal market sales worldwide [source: Kremen]. The Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD) in the United Arab Emirates plans to launch a bar code system in 2011 that will track legitimate medications and prevent counterfeits from reaching the market. Using the system, patients taking a drug make a phone call and enter the code on the package to make sure it's not a fake (source: Underwood). Pharmaceutical distributors worldwide are implementing similar safety precautions through 2-D bar code technology [source: Kremen].

Back in the hospital, bar codes are used on medications such as bottles of pills and bags of intravenous (IV) fluids. The goal of these bar codes is to ensure that hospital staff match the correct medication with the correct patient [source: Reinberg].

Unfortunately, if this bar code system isn't used properly, it may fail to prevent a patient from receiving the wrong medication. In one study of five hospitals, nurses ordered incorrect medications despite computer system alerts from bar code scans for more than 4 percent of patients, which amounted to over 10 percent of all medications ordered. Researchers said nurses who misused bar codes and ignored the alerts could have caused patients to receive the wrong drug doses and formulas [source: Neale].

Bar codes might still play a role in keeping you safe outside the health care industry. One example is in the form of ID cards used for secure access to buildings. Secure buildings often use scanner technology to release door locks. Bar codes on ID cards are passed over a bar code scanner at each secure door for entry. This helps protect people inside the building from intruders that might threaten their lives, and it prevents intruders from accessing dangerous materials inside a building that could be a threat to the public if they got out.

Another way bar codes help prevent life-threatening situations is by speeding up the product recall process. Part of a UPC bar code is the product's Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), which can be used to identify an individual product or a grouping of products as they're distributed to the businesses that sell them [source: GS1 US]. By using the GTIN, stockers in warehouses and retail store stockrooms can quickly identify if they have any stock of a recalled product before it ever reaches store shelves.

If you browse product recalls on the Web, you'll find various examples of cases in which a food, toy or baby product was potentially hazardous to the consumer. For example, in December 2010, Whole Foods Market issued a recall of a milk-free frozen dessert product because it possibly contained milk. This type of situation could have been dangerous and even deadly to someone with severe milk allergies who had purchased the product specifically because it was milk-free. Whole Foods was able to quickly identify 25 suspect pallets of the product, determine where those pallets would have been shipped, and inform their stores and customers how to identify the recalled product. [source: Whole Foods]

As we've just seen, bar codes can potentially save your life by facilitating access to information essential to ensuring your safety and by reducing the time needed to handle an emergency. Scan forward to the next page for more information on bar codes.

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Sources

  • General Data Company. "Personal ID Bar code Patient Wristbands." (March 21, 2011)http://www.general-data.com/Healthcare/Solutions/PersonalID/Default.aspx
  • GS1 US. "Global Trade Item Number (GTIN)" (March 21, 2011)http://www.gs1us.org/standards/identification_numbers/global_trade_item_number
  • Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) Canada. "Pharmaceutical Bar Coding to Improve Patient Safety: Options for Technical Standards in the Canadian Environment." June 2008. (March 21, 2011)http://www.ismp-canada.org/download/BarCoding_Roundtable_Proceedings.pdf
  • Kremen, Rachel. "Catching Fake Meds in a Snapshot." Technology Review. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sept. 8, 2009. (March 25, 2011)http://www.technologyreview.com/communications/23369/
  • Neale, Todd. "Bar code Systems to Reduce Hospital Drug Errors Not Foolproof." MedPage Today. Everyday Health, Inc. July 1, 2008. (March 21, 2011)http://www.medpagetoday.com/PublicHealthPolicy/PracticeManagement/9985
  • Underwood, Mitya. "Bar code strategy in war against counterfeit medicines." The National. UAE News. July 2, 2010. (March 21, 2011)http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/bar code-strategy-in-war-against-counterfeit-medicines
  • Weeks, Carly. "Proposed prescription bar-code plan would save lives, experts say." The Globe and Mail, Inc. Feb. 3, 2010. (March 21, 2011)http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health/proposed-prescription-bar-code-plan-would-save-lives-experts-say/article1455443/
  • Reinberg, Steven. "Bar Codes Cut Down on Hospital Medication Errors." U.S. News & World Report, LP. May 5, 2010. (March 21, 2011)http://health.usnews.com/health-news/managing-your-healthcare/healthcare/articles/2010/05/05/bar-codes-cut-down-on-hospital-medication-errors
  • Whole Foods Market IP. "Product Recalls: 2010." (March 21, 2011)http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/products/product-recalls.php?year=2010