Use of bar codes urged for all drug packaging

In an effort to increase patient safety in hospitals and health systems across the country, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) is urging the Food and Drug Administration to require drug manufacturers to print bar codes on all drug packages.

In a letter to Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, ASHP stressed the immediate need for regulations requiring standardized machine-readable coding on all drug product containers, including single-dose medication packages used in hospitals. ASHP has concluded that manufacturers will not add codes to all medication packages in the foreseeable future without a federal mandate, says Henri R. Manasse Jr., PhD, ScD, ASHP executive vice president and CEO.

"We are talking about the last line of defense against making a dangerous medication error," he says. "This is the same technology that grocery stores use to ensure that the correct price is charged for your soda and pretzels. It’s shameful that drug manufacturers are not universally employing bar codes to help protect the safety of patients.

"When hospitals know that standardized bar coding will be required on medication packages, we believe that they will move quickly to have scanners ready at patients’ bedsides," Manasse says.

The benefits of bar-coding technology are well-recognized. The 1999 Institute of Medicine report, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health Care System, notes that bar coding is "an effective remedy" for medication errors when used to make sure the right dose is administered to the right patient.

In addition to improving patient safety, bar coding is said to improve the efficiency of drug product purchasing, storage, and distribution in hospitals, allowing more time for pharmacists to help counsel patients and monitor drug therapy regimens.