The humble barcode has expanded beyond its traditional retail use into new markets, and is leading to improved accuracy and fewer errors in the health care industry, according to an executive at asset intelligence company Zebra.

“Barcodes are almost totally ubiquitous in this day and age – the technology for reading them is cost-effective and the variety of information that can be stored on them is even more impressive since the introduction of 2D barcoding,” said Wayne Harper, Zebra’s senior technology director for the APAC region.

"With hospitals frequently reliant on government funding, planned upgrades are often exceeded by financial realities, but the desire for digital innovation is still there."

Barcodes have proven to be a cost-effective method of introducing digital improvements to healthcare operations, minimising impact to a provider’s bottom line, according to Harper.

"Gdansk University Health Centre & Centre for Invasive Medicine implemented ID barcoding through Zebra, and estimates it has cut expenditure by 20% as a result of improved processes and more efficient lab testing," he added.

For a health care provider, accuracy of records is vital, and a barcode and digital-based approach eliminates many of the potential errors that can occur as a result of handwritten notes, Harper said.

Barcodes technology can also be used in maternity wards to match mothers with their newborns, reducing the potential for mix-ups, he said. Furthermore, the barcodes can be printed on medical-grade plastic labels, ensuring they are legible and don’t degrade, as they currently can with handwritten wristbands.

"With Zebra mobile printing solutions, materials can be printed in full sight of the patient in question, eliminating the dangers of misidentification and saving precious time," Harper said.

“One study in the US suggested that there were around 400 mix-ups between mother and child each year. Most of the time it’s an easily-corrected error – but there have been cases where the wrong medication has been administered to the wrong child, which is a serious issue.

"Barcoding can help avoid these situations.”

More advanced wristbands could also be used, containing RFID chips that grant the mother access to exclusive areas of the hospital, and could also keep track of her whereabouts, particularly if she required surgery as part of the childbirth process.

Ensuring accurate specimen identification

Having blood drawn can be a harrowing experience, and the situation can be exacerbated if you’re constantly being asked to verify the specimen label information, which is usually handwritten by the attending nurse.

Using barcode technology could eliminate this inefficiency in the process, and ensure that the patient only spends the minimum time required for the procedure to be completed, according to Harper.

In addition, it can help improve accuracy of records, reducing the potential for misdiagnosis.

 “One way healthcare facilities are working to eliminate the potential for specimen misidentification is through the use of barcode scanners and compact printers,” Harper explained.  “These allow for immediate labelling and documentation of the specimens right at the point of collection – a completely mobile process.”

Future specimen labels may include temperature sensors to ensure that specimens are stored in optimum conditions, or RFID tags to enable location awareness of the samples as they move between facilities, he said.

The use of barcodes within the health industry is more than just eliminating manual labelling. It’s about ensuring record accuracy, maximising process efficiency and improving patient outcomes, Harper said.