Barcodes assist in reducing medication errors

Jenny Decker RN's picture

It has been a subject of debate for a long time, how to prevent errors in medication administration. Many people who go into a hospital for one reason or another end up being a victim of medication error. Nurses and doctors spend many hours learning how to prevent medication errors in school long before they may even see a real patient. With new technology, perhaps an addition to that system may safeguard against human error. Researchers at the 735-bed Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston are the first to study the benefits of a barcode system. These barcodes are used to assist in reducing medication errors.

The study was reported in today’s edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. The study showed significant success in reducing med errors. Med errors were cut by more than half. The way it works is a patient has a barcode on their wristband. The nurse cross checks the wristband and the barcode on the medication. If those do not match, then the nurse is alerted.


According to the study, a patient’s chance of receiving the wrong dose of a medication at this hospital is reduced by 42 percent. A patient’s chances of getting a dose that the doctor did not order went down by 61 percent. The system also decreases chances of getting a dose at the wrong time by 27 percent. Transcription errors went down to zero. The hospital performed the study 6 weeks after the system had been phased in, and so because of changes that have already been made into the system, chances are the chances of medication errors are even lower now.

Dr. Eric G. Poon, director of clinical informatics at the hospital pointed out that this is very important information because the barcode technology is being considered a 2013 criterion for meaningful use of health information technology under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

However, it is also noted that the system is definitely not cheap. It cost the hospital nearly $10 million to implement the program. However, Dr. Poon indicates that a large part of that cost went towards training. The researchers intend to do a cost-benefit analysis next to determine if indeed the system is saving money as that question has not been answered at this time. A barcode system to augment reduction in medication errors is a huge step up towards preventing medication errors.