Bar code technology to help reduce medication errors


CORVALLIS - The recent Food and Drug Administration proposal requiring hospitals to attach bar codes to all medications has the potential to dramatically reduce the estimated 7,000 accidental deaths of hospitalized patients caused each year by incorrect or incorrectly administered drugs.

But the FDA proposal also means that hospitals, drug makers, pharmacies, nursing homes and other organizations must scramble to select and install wireless bar code systems within a three-year timeline and quickly train staff to use the new scanning technology.

Researchers at the Mobile Technologies Solutions Laboratory in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University may assist with this, being able to offer consultation and training about a bar coding technology few other researchers are familiar with.

"Oregon State is one of only a handful of academic research organizations in the world with experience and expertise in RSS (Reduced Space Symbology) bar codes, the type selected by the FDA because of their small size," said Richard Billo, head of OSU's Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. "We authored a white paper on it, we've tested it with real users in our lab, and most recently, our researchers have developed a prototype wireless bedside medication verification system."

During the past two years, OSU researchers gained broad experience with the RSS bar coding technology when PSC, Inc., a large scanner manufacturing company based in Eugene, partnered with the OSU lab to test its new scanners with RSS bar codes.

Using the bar coding system proposed by the FDA, health workers will scan a code on a patient's wristband that indicates the medications prescribed, the correct dosage and form (oral, injection, etc.) and when the drugs should be administered. The worker will then scan the intended medication to ensure that it matches the information on the wristband. If the wrong drug, dosage, or form of medication has been selected, a computer alarm will sound.

The proposed system can also be programmed to determine whether or not a selected drug might trigger an allergic reaction in a patient, or if the drug could react adversely with another medication the patient is already taking.

Medication errors each year cause human suffering and represent a significant economic cost to the United States. According to the Institute of Medicine and other experts, the expected annual benefit from preventing adverse events due to medication errors is $3.9 billion.

Billo said researchers at the OSU lab are pleased to be able to help reduce the number of deaths and injuries caused by drug errors.

"This is ultimately what good engineering is all about," Billo said. "Employing state-of-the-art technology to improve the world and, in this case, save thousands of lives."

The basic technology has been used for years in retail stores and warehouses, Billo said, but the smaller size of the new RSS bar code enables the technology to be used in the drug industry.

"The FDA proposal is a revolutionary, visionary idea whose time has come," Billo said. "As a major research university, we're thrilled to be able to offer our expertise to help hospital staff and other healthcare workers implement the new technology."

The Mobile Technologies Solutions Laboratory at OSU is one of only three such facilities in the nation, and the first in the Pacific Northwest. Corporate sponsors of the lab include Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Symbol Technologies, PSC, and others. More information about the lab cab be found on the web at http://ie.oregonstate.edu/mtsl/index.html.