A study in the New England Journal of Medicine has concluded that using barcodes as a verification technology with an electronic medication administration system is "an important intervention to improve medication safety."

Researchers observed more than 14,000 medication administrations and 3,000 order requests at an un-named academic medical centre that was implementing barcode eMAR.

They found the system eliminated transcription errors and substantially reduced administration errors and potential adverse drug events.

The NEJM article says: "Observers noted 776 non-timing errors in medication administration on units that did not use the bar-code eMAR (an 11.5% error rate) versus 495 such errors on units that did use it (a 6.8% error rate) — a 41.4% relative reduction in errors (P<0.001).

"The rate of potential adverse drug events (other than those associated with timing errors) fell from 3.1% without the use of the bar-code eMAR to 1.6% with its use, representing a 50.8% relative reduction (P<0.001).

"Transcription errors occurred at a rate of 6.1% on units that did not use the bar-code eMAR but were completely eliminated on units that did use it."

Despite the positive results, the authors identify some issues with this kind of electronic prescribing. For example, 20% of the drugs administered during the observation period were administered without the barcode scanning step.

Link: Effect of Bar-Code Technology on the Safety of Medication Administration, New England Journal of Medicine (subscription required for full article).