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Bar Codes May Save Lives

Technology ensures dosage, can reduce medical errors

May 13, 2003 | AP

Scan the nurse's badge. Beep. Scan the patient's armband. Beep. Scan the drug label. Beep.

With new technology for avoiding medical errors, starting a patient on intravenous medication sounds like a grocery checkout line.

A Pennsylvania company's latest intravenous pump uses a supermarket-style bar code scanner to check a list of "rights" nurses can't afford to get wrong: right patient, right drug, right dose, right route, right time.

Every medication given in a hospital will soon have to carry a bar code under proposed federal Food and Drug Administration rules expected to be finalized early next year for a three-year phase-in.

It's part of an effort to curb medical mistakes that the Institute of Medicine estimates contribute to up to 98,000 deaths a year. Medication errors alone kill an estimated 7,000 hospitalized patients annually.

Tests of computer technology and bar coding to cut down on medication errors also are among recommendations from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's medical malpractice task force as it looks for ways to get a grip on rising insurance premiums driving some doctors from the state.

Bethlehem-based B. Braun USA says it is in the forefront of the bar code race with a scanning intravenous pump designed to eliminate some of the most common and most dangerous medication errors.

George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., has bought 200 of the B. Braun IV pumps and expects to have the scanning system in full use in a few months.

In essence, said Barbara Jacobs, the hospital's director of critical care, "the pump will automatically stop me from going in the room and giving Mr. Johnson's medications to Mr. Smith."

The technology has become a focus of efforts to cut down on medical mistakes, said Allen Vaida, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Safe Medication Practices.

"Bar coding has picked up as a piece of technology that many hospitals and even ambulatory sites are putting in," Vaida said, adding that many companies are racing to bring such systems to market.

For example, the University of Wisconsin Hospital is testing a bar code scanning system McKesson Automation Inc. and Alaris Medical Systems Inc. are jointly developing to reduce intravenous medication errors, he said.

B. Braun USA, a subsidiary of the privately held German company B. Braun, hopes to make the technology a major revenue producer. The U.S. subsidiary employs about 4,500 of B. Braun's 28,000 employees worldwide, including about 1,500 at its headquarters in Bethlehem and its plant in Allentown.

The new IV pumps bypass many potential errors by using the bar code readings to automatically program dosages.

"You usually have to go through between eight and 15 steps to program a pump," said Sheila Kempf, a B. Braun vice president and former intensive care nurse. And they are particularly risky steps.

The new pumps are computerized to input the figures direct from the bar codes. The nurse reads the medication and the dosage on the pump's LED screen and confirms that the information is correct.

Then and only then, Kempf said, "You press 'run.' "

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