updated 2/26/2004 5:42:29 PM ET 2004-02-26T22:42:29

The government is requiring that supermarket-style bar codes soon be placed on the labels of thousands of drugs to help ensure that hospitalized patients get the right dose of the right drug at the right time.

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The long-anticipated regulation, announced Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration, could prevent nearly half a million side effects and medical errors over the next 20 years, according to government estimates.

“Bar codes can help doctors, nurses and hospitals make sure that they give their patients the right drugs at the appropriate dosage,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. “By giving health care providers a way to check medications and doses quickly, we create an opportunity to reduce the risk of medication errors that can seriously harm patients.”

Drug errors cause deaths
An estimated 7,000 hospitalized patients die annually because of drug errors where a wrong drug or a wrong dose is dispensed.

With the bar code system, health workers use computer equipment to scan an identifying code on a patient’s wristband that reveals what medicines he or she needs and when. Then they scan the intended medication. If they pick the wrong drug, wrong dose or a pill version when a liquid was required, the computer beeps an alarm.

Veterans hospitals already have adopted bar codes, relabeling their own drugs so they can be electronically identified. In a study at one Veterans Affairs medical center, 5.7 million doses of bar-coded medication were administered with no errors.

So far, about 125 of the nation’s 5000-plus hospitals use bar code systems, partly because only about 35 percent of their pharmaceutical supplies come with the codes affixed to them, according to Bridge Medical Incorporated, a leading manufacturer of bar code systems.

The new rules will force drug manufacturers to begin phasing in bar codes on all hospital-sold drugs, making it possible for more hospitals to adopt the system.

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