UK-based campaigning group, e.centre, has welcomed a ruling by the US Food and Drug Administration mandating the use of a uniform system for barcoding pharmaceuticals. The pressure is now on for the NHS to follow suit.

E.centre is a not-for-profit organisation which acts as the UK authority for the EAN.UCC (European Article Numbering and Uniform Code Council) barcoding system used in 121 countries worldwide and across many different industries and sectors.

Chief executive, Steve Coussins, said “We have been working closely with senior NHS officials over a number of months regarding the adoption of EAN.UCC item identifiers throughout the health service. Pharmaceutical products are a key target for us and although there is significant use of EAN.UCC standards by the large drug manufacturers, there is limited usage among hospital and community pharmacists.”

According to e.centre, the current fragmented approach in the NHS puts patients at risk and leads to increased supply chain costs. Numerous studies cited in the organisation’s literature point to high cost of adverse incidents in the NHS.

Examples quoted include the Audit Commission’s Spoonful of Sugar report on medicines management, which said that each adverse incident led to an average of 8.5 additional days in hospital, a burden costing the NHS £1.1 billion a year. The same report said that scanning errors occurred just once in every 5m scans while manual keying errors occur at the rate of 1 in 300 entries.

Emma O’Brien, executive in consulting services at e.centre, told E-Health Insider why she thought the picture in the NHS was so fragmented. “I really feel it’s a matter of accountability: there’s no one organisation in the NHS or agency or person responsible for working out standards in England.”

She said that e.centre had been meeting with the NHS Information Authority, NHS Logistics and the NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency to work through the issues involved.

Hospitals that have switched to robotic dispensing are using EAN.UCC standards and have become advocates for them. Patrick Martin, principle pharmacist, procurement and distribution, at the Royal London Hospital, said of the hospital’s new robotic dispensing system, “Improved stock control is a major benefit of the EAN.UCC system reducing supply failures, ‘missed doses’ and delayed discharge times. In the first four months there was a 70% reduction in errors with items which were machine-picked.”