NEW ORLEANS -- The federal government is proposing that supermarket-style bar codes be required on the packaging of all hospital-administered prescription medicines to help prevent deadly drug errors.
Assistant U.S. Health Secretary Bobby Jindal announced the proposal Monday at a meeting of the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists, saying drug errors injure or kill 50,000 to 100,000 patients a year. He put the economic toll at $177 billion.
The bar codes - which would include the medications' properties and expiration dates - would enable doctors to more quickly and accurately determine which drug and how much of it is best for the patient, Jindal said.
The requirement, expected to be in place sometime next year, would allow hospitals to take advantage of technology that is similar to the kind used in supermarkets.
Patients would wear wristbands with bar codes that would provide a computer with personal information, including the person's ailments or any allergies.
Before administering a drug, doctors would scan the label and the patient's wristband, and a computer program would study the information to identify possible risks.
"You've got health care professionals who are in a hurry, seeing many, many patients," Jindal said. "This allows them to rely on a computer to make sure they're giving the right amount of medicine or that they don't give the wrong medicine."
Drug makers were not prepared to endorse the proposal before examining the fine print and possible costs.
"This could potentially help cut down on errors but the devil is in the details and we need to see the details," said Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, or Pharma. "This is going to be technically challenging, potentially time-consuming and potentially very expensive."
The Food and Drug Administration will have to publish a draft of the bar code proposal and allow for a public comment period before putting it into effect.
Jindal said many hospitals, including those in the Veterans Affairs system, already have invested in the computer scanners, but often cannot take advantage of the technology because many drug labels lack bar codes.
The pharmacists' association was pleased with the announcement.
"We see it as a safety issue in reducing medication errors, and a way to reduce the social and economic costs associated with those errors" said Gary Stein, ASHP director of federal regulatory affairs
Stein said that, depending on how much information is required in the bar code, the changes could cost drug manufacturers between $500 million and $1.4 billion over 10 years. But that figure is dwarfed by the annual costs associated with errors in administering prescription drugs.
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