UPC Turns 35

In June GS1 US celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code at its U Connect Conference in Orlando. The first live scan of a UPC took place in a Marsh Supermarkets store in Troy, OH, on June 26, 1974, when a cashier scanned a package of Wrigley’s, GS1 reports. Interestingly, some lessons learned from this initial scan and those that followed in grocery and other retail environments could influence today’s healthcare reform.

“GS1 has been involved in healthcare for a long time, and GS1 Healthcare U.S. is a now concentrated effort,” explains Dennis Harrison, head of GS1 Healthcare U.S. “We could take the same concepts used in retail for the last 35 years and apply those same principles to improve healthcare.”

Improving healthcare involves ensuring patient safety and increasing supply-chain efficiencies, says Harrison. “When healthcare products, such as syringes, are referred to by different names, numbers, and descriptions, it causes confusion and inefficiencies.”

These inefficiencies don’t happen in retail, says Harrison.  GS1 reports that replacing individual price labeling with the UPC resulted in faster, more-accurate checkouts, saving consumers time and money. It also simplified product returns and rebates.

“Industry would not be as efficient without the UPC,” says Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, and chairman of the GS1 US Board of Governors. “The UPC provides a basis for the industry to track products from production to shelf, to move products between companies, and to get products to shoppers quickly.”

Adapting such traceability to healthcare product distribution and use could track product from manufacturer to distributor to hospital, bringing visibility to a chain vulnerable to counterfeiting and diversion. It could even link product to patient, increasing billing accuracy and reducing fraud.

In healthcare distribution, use of GS1’s Global Trade Item Number, the 14-digit number that has evolved from the 12-digit UPC to identify products globally, is emerging as the potential identifier of choice in healthcare. It can carry serial numbers, lot numbers, expiration dates, and other data through the addition of application identifiers. Several group purchasing organizations and trade associations have set deadlines for using the GTIN: widely discussed is the GTIN sunrise date of 2012.

A similar effort to use unique identifiers instead of custom account numbers for locations such as hospitals has also emerged as part of GS1’s Global Location Number (GLN) program. The sunrise date for GLN is 2010.

These foundational standards are necessary to achieve the type of electronic medical record system advocated by President Barrack Obama, says Harrison. “Traceability using common standards-not custom codes or multiple codes-is necessary for these systems to work,” he says.

GS1 celebrated the UPC anniversary by sharing slices of a giant UPC-adorned birthday cake with more than 800 attendees at its annual U Connect Conference.

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