Barcode Technology in Healthcare - Common Uses, Benefits and Considerations

Jan 10, 2020

It’s no industry secret that the market for electronic health records (EHR) continues to face many challenges. But, the industry is also plugging away with increased EHR adoptions and solution modifications to adapt and improve. In such cases, leveraging existing technologies people are familiar with can help remove adoption barriers. Barcodes remain one constant opportunity to do this.

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Barcodes for Familiar but Still Important Tasks

Barcodes are commonly used across multiple industries for a variety of important tasks, such as inventory, tracking, and authentication. Their use in EHR applications should also include these purposes.

For inventory, barcodes are useful in healthcare for tracking medical devices or implantable devices. Medical devices are costly and represent significant investments that a healthcare facility makes. Using barcodes to track their location, such as when one is checked out or in and by whom, can help prevent their theft or misplacement. For medical implants, the barcode can help populate a patient’s EHR with necessary information about that device or the performance of that device. This is just the tip of the iceberg for their potential use for inventory. Virtually anything you want to assign or give to a patient can be inventoried and updated to the EHR with barcodes.

Barcodes can then be used to track devices given to a patient. This can work both ways. You can track a device to each patient it was given to and you can track who administered it. For the administrator, this can include a doctor, nurse or other staff. For tracking where the device came from, this can include suppliers or manufacturers. These trails in an EHR are all helpful in administering patient care or for managing device vendors and their transactions with you.

In terms of authentication, there are also obvious uses for barcodes. This includes authenticating a patient in a room or the patient’s doctor or nurse. For example, a barcode could be affixed to a physical record in a room to match with patient data in an EHR. This helps prevent administering the wrong care to the wrong patient. Barcodes can also be used to authenticate whether a procedure has already been administered or not, such as medication.

Barcodes might also be used to extend collaboration with pharmacists, to quickly automate access to an EHR’s prescription information for processing. In addition, they are widely used in laboratory and specimen collection to authenticate patients and test results. With real-time tracking tied to an EHR, test results can conveniently be updated, and the doctor instantly notified.

Identify the Barcode Type to Use in Healthcare

The type of barcode to use in healthcare can vary. The 1D barcode is widely used in hospitals for processing patient care, such as patient wristbands. However, there is always a growing need for barcodes to store more and more data, for which 1D barcodes have their limits. In addition, barcodes today should be more suited for mobile usage from patients to providers. As more and more patients come to expect mobile device integration, healthcare providers will also need to adapt.

Such requirements today have many EHR providers looking to adopt 2D barcodes to offer for use in healthcare practices. Compared to linear 1D barcodes, 2D barcodes have the advantage of more memory capacity and storing more information within less barcode space. In addition, 2D barcodes are more convenient for mobile scans. Vendors and users need to make sure to properly analyze specific requirements to cover all workflow needs. When deciding the barcode type, systems administrators must also research barcode scanning devices that support each type. Some old barcode scanner models may not work with 2D barcodes.

Barcode Image Quality

The quality of the barcode image is important for accuracy and faster barcode recognition. For example, when scanning documents with barcodes, a resolution of 300 dpi or above is recommended. When trying to manage storage savings by using reduced image quality, it’s a balance to make sure you don’t disrupt data quality or workflow as a result.

Besides image quality, it’s often required to allow users to verify scanned data and manually correct it in cases where errors are found. This is a particularly important step to consider in any EHR workflow.

Standards Considerations

Finally, when it comes to the EHR market and barcodes, there are standards to consider. The GS1 provides guidance on barcodes standards. This includes healthcare-specific barcode standards. For example, there is coverage of standards for identification, for barcodes and EPC/RFID, and for data exchange.

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) provides a lot of guidance for standards in healthcare information and technology. This includes calls for action on proper integration and interoperability between the varying systems involved in health information exchanges.

The EHR is on the minds of just about anyone involved in the document management industry. Lots of changes have occurred and lots more are still to come. But, barcode technology has remained a consistent reliable mechanism for records management and the EHR can stand to benefit just as much from adapted intelligent use of barcodes in healthcare.