I have to confess that I felt I was in a bit of a time warp recently when I read that the Government’s 2023 mandate to NHS England calls for all trusts to adopt barcode scanning by 2024. Really? Barcodes? What year is it again? However, a little bit of more critical thinking and less of a knee jerk reaction led to a realisation.
Every technology has its place and sometimes we have to view them as complimentary, or additive and not just competing with each other.
So, the use of barcodes shouldn’t be seen as a Luddite approach, but rather the foundation for something better. Let me make a case for barcodes in healthcare, and then tell you how they can be further leveraged to gain so much more.
When treating a patient, barcodes are great if you want to know if the one thing you’re using, the drug you’re injecting or indeed the patient you’re with are the right thing, drug, and patient and that it’s safe to proceed – in other words, the Scan4Safety initiative. This began in 2016 and saw six NHS Trusts implement GS1 powered barcodes to uniquely identify every person and product and was relaunched by NHS England in October 2022 and continues to gain momentum. In fact, 31 per cent of trusts in England have now adopted GS1 standards and programmes are now being implemented across Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. This reduces the likelihood of medication errors, enhances the speed of data entry, and streamlines workflows, ultimately leading to better patient care and outcomes.
Whilst this initiative is laudable, pragmatic and cost effective, it doesn’t help solve other significant issues that healthcare providers face. Significant time is wasted by clinical and nursing staff in locating medical devices and equipment – some studies suggest as much as 16%. This lack of “visibility” of devices and equipment also leads to over procurement using up the scarce funding available to support a contingency model rather than an efficient usage model.
But here is where the opportunity lies. Barcodes supporting the GS1 standard contain information about what the device or equipment is, meaning that they are effectively self-identifying. So if we wanted to also add other technology to them to be able to know where they are, what condition there are in and how to get hold of them, much of the work is done.
I am of course taking about technologies like Radio Frequency Identification. RFID tags can be read without requiring direct line-of-sight, or indeed without any action being taken. This means that multiple tags can be scanned simultaneously, and they can be read through materials like clothing, packaging, or even human tissue. RFID readers can be placed around a facility, continuously updating a map with the location of all of the tagged devices and equipment (and patients, staff, visitors etc., if consent is gained.)
That means if all of the devices and equipment we want to locate are already tagged with a barcode standard like GS1, then adding an RFID tag (or indeed a GPS or low energy Bluetooth tag) becomes a much more quick and easy task. Apply the RFID tag, scan both it and the GS1 tag, link them together and Bob’s your real time location tracking and tracing system.
I was driving home when I realised that by using these complimentary technologies, we get both a safer and a more efficient delivery of healthcare services, but that we need a nice, simple easy to understand analogy. What signifies getting more power out of what’s already there by adding more technology? Then I got overtaken by a Porsche Turbo.