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News

Are barcodes really the answer to NHS problems?

16 January, 2017

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The Department of Health recently announced that they will be introducing a new £12 million scheme within the NHS, which will see barcodes introduced to various implants, medications and surgical tools in an aim to ‘reduce waste, save money and improve safety’. They argue that this scheme, titled ‘Scan4Safety’, could save the NHS up to £1 billion over 7 years. Barcodes will be introduced on anything from the wristbands on a patient’s wrist, to recording the medication they receive and the equipment used to treat them. These codes can be scanned to show who administered the treatment, and at what time and where.  The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, called it a ‘world first’ in healthcare that will ‘help transform standards of care – before, during and after patients have treatment, at the same time as freeing up resources for care by reducing waste’. The government argue that on average nurses spend one hour a day searching for stock on their shifts. Six NHS trusts are already piloting the scheme: Derby, Leeds, Salisbury, Cornwall, North Tees and Plymouth, and they have reported that it reduces unnecessary waste and helps manages stocks, thereby saving staff time and giving patients more information about their treatment.

By introducing this scheme the government hope to avoid another scandal like the PIP breast implant scare of 2010, where problems arose when they attempted to trace the 50,000 women affected by the faulty implants. The barcode system should mean that in the event of product recalls such as this it will be much easier to trace the relevant patients. It should also help show how effective different equipment is, for example if one type of hip replacement wears out more easily than the other, and therefore will help to streamline the NHS system by lessening the possibility of human error.

The government also argue that the barcode system, commonly seen in retail, would help to avoid ‘never events’, or at the very least help trace who administered treatment no matter the size of the object. Jeremy Hunt said that it would save lives because every week on the NHS patients die as a result of being given the wrong treatment. Others are left with traumatising experiences such as having had the wrong implant put into their body which later had to be removed. Hunt argues that the barcode system should help deal with these issues. Ideally it should stop the errors happening in the first place, but it will be quicker and easier to trace why and what went wrong if they are to happen. 

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However, whilst yes, accidents do happen, the doctors and nurses on the NHS hold people’s lives in their hands. When never events have got to the point that the government need to spend £12 million on a new system, it appears that there is a deeper root-cause of the problem, which will not necessarily be stopped with the introduction of barcodes. It’s great to see the government taking affirmative action. However, by Jeremy Hunt’s own admission, patients are dying each week due to NHS failings. Barcodes do not necessarily prevent these ‘never events’ from occurring, they just make it easier to trace when things do go wrong. This is of course better than nothing, but would it not be better to tackle the main issues facing the NHS, namely understaffing and budget cuts that result in overworked staff making these mistakes?

A recent leak to the BBC gave evidence that only one hospital hit the four hour wait target last week with over 18,000 ‘trolley waits’ of over four hours. The BBC report found that ‘since the start of December hospitals have only seen 82.3% of patients … within the four-hour wait target’, which is the worst performance since 2004 when the target was first introduced. Additionally, the Red Cross, a charity usually reserved for major crisis, had to be brought in to assist the NHS last week, demonstrating the severity of the problems the NHS is facing. These problems can’t be solved just by introducing a barcode system. These ‘never events’ won’t see a resolution until money is plunged back into the NHS by the government, allowing for more staff and therefore, in turn, fewer avoidable events, aka never events.