Make Headlines with Codes, Not Mistakes


Bar coding pharmaceuticals to help reduce hospital and pharmacy dispensing errors is noble indeed. Experts predict that reading these codes using automation will save lives because such identification replaces error-prone human identification.

But there may be another reason to bar code pharmaceuticals. It's good PR. I'm not referring just to the coverage we've prepared on Pfizer's recent success in bar coding unit doses of Dilantin, which we cover in this month's "Bar Coding Supplement" starting on page 47. I mean the national coverage Pfizer got in the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and other news outlets, when the drug firm announced its pledge to bar code all of its drugs that are placed into hospital unit doses. This is exactly the type of press a drug company wants. 

As we saw recently with the tragic case of 17-year-old Jesica Santillan, who died last month after a botched heart-lung transplant, mainstream press gives medical errors top billing. Questions of patient safety pop up, and anyone who ever spent a night in a hospital wonders how close he or she came to suffering from a doctor's or nurse's mistake.

It's only a matter of time, then, until the next patient injury or death due to mistaken drug delivery makes headlines. Drug names, both brand and generic, are more similar these days, reports the Institute for Safe Medication Practices in its recent March 6 Medication Safety Alert newsletter. And nurses and pharmacists are both in short supply and juggling more patients, so there's a real chance of mistakes. 

Patients, too, are more aware of these mistakes. A phone survey conducted in January on behalf of AmerisourceBergen revealed that the public is concerned about medical errors, particularly medication errors, says Barbara Brungess, AmerisourceBergen's manager of corporate and investor relations. "Most reported that either they or people they know have been given the wrong drug," she explains. 

Of those surveyed, 75% favored the use of bar codes to reduce drug errors. And 82% of 18- to 34-year-olds said that the government should require drug makers and repackagers to bar code all prescriptions. Respondents listed bar code drug scanning second out of a list of five ways to increase dispensing accuracy.

Most did say that hospitals are placing a high priority on reducing drug errors. How-ever, if the next error is a grave one, and it ends up leading the day's news, as did poor Jesica Santillan's case did, the public is going to want to lay blame somewhere. Overworked pharmacists and nurses may not be the scapegoats this time. It may just be the drug makers and packagers who did little to distinguish their drugs from others similar in name or dosage. 

Pfizer, Baxter, Abbott Labs, B. Braun, Merck, and other drug manufacturers are taking the lead when it comes to bar coding unit-dose medication. And Pfizer and Baxter are both showing that lot codes and expi-ration dates can be added to packages in ways that do not disrupt packaging and printing operations, as we explore in this month's supplement. 

We'd like to report on your progress, too.

Daphne Allen
, Editor


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