A new strategy document looking at the use of smart wireless wristbands and barcode labelling technologies has been launched by health minister Lord Hunt.

The Department of Health believes that auto-identification and data capture (AIDC) technology has the potential to tackle mismatching errors in particular, as well as bringing other efficiencies and cost savings.

Lord Hunt launched the document ‘Coding for Success: simple technology for safer patient care’ on a visit to the Birmingham Heartlands NHS Trust.

They have been using radio frequency identification (RFID) wristbands, supplied by Safe Surgery Systems to enhance patient safety and ensure the correct identification and tracking of patients. The hospital went out to OJEC procurement last March.

Hunt said: “Patient safety is my top priority and this document sets out a clear case for the use of AIDC technology by industry and the NHS in order to save lives, reduce mistakes and improve efficiency.

“The work of Birmingham Heartlands is a fine example of how technology can reduce patient mistakes and waiting times for operations and free up staff to spend more time on the wards with patients.”

The DH hopes the document will encourage other trusts to take up the technology and say that its key applications include verification -verifying the identity of an item, person or procedure and linking this with the member of staff giving their care, data capture – where serial numbers or reference numbers need to be entered into electronic records and supply chain issues and effective track and trace of goods improving stock control so the right supplies are available in the right place at the right time.

They are working closely with RFID and barcode standards specialists GS1 to help trusts look into the possibilities of the wireless technology.

Hunt added: “Auto-identification is not a new technology – we’ve all been used to bar codes in supermarkets for years. But to reap the benefits in healthcare everyone needs to work to agreed standards. We are recommending that both industry and the NHS should use the GS1 System for coding, and I am delighted to be able to announce that GS1UK will be providing membership and support to NHS organisations who want to move forward on this.

“The guidance published today should assist NHS organisations, industry and technology suppliers in taking up the challenge of using AIDC and driving the agenda forward.”

The move has been welcomed by the Association of British Healthcare Industries, whose technical and regulatory director, Mike Kreuzer, said: “The ABHI, having originally raised the importance of AIDC in the HITF process in 2004, welcomes Coding for Success. It presents a comprehensive overview and clear recommendations avoiding mandatory solutions, which would be inappropriate in a complex and fast developing area.

“Hopefully this will lead to EU wide and, eventually, global standardisation of coding systems for medical devices in the best interests of patient safety.”

Similar technologies have also been adopted at Leeds Teaching Hospitals where RFID in the catheter labs has reduced stock levels and at Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals where an electronic blood transfusion system has reduced procedure times.

Heart of England’s consultant surgeon, David Morgan, said: “We have been using an RFID wristband tagging system to identify patients in the Day Case Surgery Unit at Heart of England NHS Trust for the last 2 years. Since using the system the staff have been able to spend more time with the patients due to less paper work and patient safety has greatly increased. In fact we have not had a single mistake whilst using the system.

“The theatres run more efficiently because there is less hanging around waiting for patients – this means we can operate on at least one extra patient per session.

The accuracy of coding has now increased to almost 100% as the coding is done by the operating surgeon on his PDA at the time of surgery. The staff find the digital devices easy to use thus saving time.”

The DH claims that by wearing a bar-coded wristband, a bar code reader can be used to verify the patient’s identity at any time, and be an extra check that the right patient is about to received the right care.

At present errors, many of which are caused by getting the patient identity wrong, cost the NHS around £2 billion in extra bed days. Auto-identification could make a significant impact on this cost.

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