TORONTO - A project involving drug makers, suppliers, hospitals and safety organizations was launched Wednesday to promote the use of bar codes to identify drugs, with the goal of reducing preventable medication errors across Canada.
The initiative was announced by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and other partners.
"Relying only on human vigilance to ensure medication safety is not enough; better use of available technology will be important in the 21st century," David U, president and CEO of ISMP Canada, said in a statement.
"With over 30,000 commercial drug products in the marketplace, there is a significant and overdue need for a co-ordinated approach to bar coding pharmaceuticals in order to enable automated identification throughout the Canadian healthcare system."
The two safety groups, along with health-care industry stakeholders, reached a national consensus on using GS1 global bar codes as the standard format for labelling medication packaging.
Alicia Duval, senior vice-president of health care for GS1 Canada, said bar coding is one of the safest ways to track pharmaceutical products through the supply chain, from the time they're made until they're administered to patients.
But she said it means bar codes must be standardized on packaging, and readable by health-system scanners and software so that preventable mistakes don't occur.
"There's no health-care provider out there that intends on making mistakes," she said in an interview, noting that numbers or letters can be transposed when new labelling is put on containers at hospitals, or visual mistakes can occur when pills look alike but one is low-dose and one is high-dose.
"The automation is intended to take away that manual process so there is an automated system (for verification)," she said.
For instance, with a bar-coded wristband, "you'd verify that the right patient is about to receive the right medication, so both the patient and the product is scanned prior to ingesting it," she explained.
GS1 bar coding has been on pharmaceutical products for many years, she said, but this initiative is to drive consistency in the kind of bar code used and what type of information it carries.
"Should it just be the number that represents the product, or should it also include the lot number to be able to identify the specific lot in case of recall?" she asked.
Some hospitals are using bar codes, but others don't even have scanners, Duval said, noting that the project could take three to five years to complete.
The organizations cited a 2004 study by Ross Baker and Peter Norton suggesting that 7.5 per cent of national hospital admissions involved an adverse event, and 20 per cent of these adverse events led to the death of a patient.
Of these, the researchers found that the second-highest cause was medication or fluid therapies - and more than one-third were preventable.