'Never events' could be avoided with deployment of supermarket-style technology

New data shows inexcusable errors in NHS are still too common, with safety chiefs calling for use of retail industry-style barcode technology

Barcoding technology will help NHS providers to avoid \'never events\' which put patients\' lives at risk

The launch, last month, of the Department of Health’s eProcurement Strategy, which mandates the use of supermarket-style technologies such as barcodes, has been welcomed by safety chiefs who claim the systems will also help to reduce ‘never events’ that put patients’ lives at risk.

The comments come in the wake of new data which shows, once again, that inexcusable errors occurring within the NHS are still too common – with 75 so-called ‘never events’ occurring in the last quarter.

Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, told the Patient Safety Congress last week that up to one in 20 hospital deaths in England could have been prevented.

Most people are familiar with automated checkouts in supermarkets and the warning ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’. This technology, which enables the till to know where each item is and whether it has been properly accounted for, can also be applied to theatre environments

But there are solutions available. Simple and standardised technologies such as barcoding and electronic tagging can help to prevent many surgical and medicinal never events, enabling healthcare professionals to keep patients safe and provide the highest levels of care possible.

According to McKinsey, adopting a single global supply chain standard across the entire healthcare supply chain could save up to 43,000 lives and avert 1.4 million patient disabilities globally.

Recognising this, a recent report by NHS England’s Events Task Force has called for an improvement in patient safety, highlighting the potential for GS1 Standards to help achieve this.

GS1 standards have been in use for decades in other sectors, in particular the retail industry, where barcodes on products have been used to improve supply chain efficiency, drive down costs and provide retailers with information about shopping habits. In the health sector the widespread adoption of Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) technology has the potential to support patient safety, particularly through medicine management and device and file tracking activities.

Chris Doyle, industry marketing manager for healthcare at GS1 UK, said: “The process of using instruments in operating theatres is clearly prone to human error, with 123 of the 312 never events reported in the last year being items wrongly left inside patients. Most people are familiar with automated checkouts in supermarkets and the warning ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’. This technology, which enables the till to know where each item is and whether it has been properly accounted for, can also be applied to theatre environments.”

We are pleased that NHS England has recognised the potential for GS1 Standards to improve patient safety, but we now need to see these standards put into action

He added: “Similarly, serious medication errors are common in hospitals and often occur during order transcription or administration of medication. An additional layer of safety is provided through the use of barcodes, which sees medication tracked from when it’s first prescribed, through dispensing to when it’s administered to the patient. Furthermore, warnings can flag to healthcare providers when medicine is overdue, may interact with other medicines the patient is taking, or doesn’t match the prescription. Preliminary studies have suggested the use of barcodes on medicines to the single unit level can help to reduce medication error rates by 41.4%.”

Commenting on Hunt’s speech, he concluded: “We are pleased that NHS England has recognised the potential for GS1 Standards to improve patient safety, but we now need to see these standards put into action.

“As an industry we can’t afford to let never events continue when there is a simple solution available. GS1 Standards are already mandated within the healthcare sector to improve procurement efficiency and reduce costs. The rollout of the same technologies in operating theatres could help to improve patient safety, so what are we waiting for?”

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