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NHS patient bar codes slammed

Patients are not 'boxes of bandages': NO2ID

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The NHS has proposed making patients wear bar code bracelets or RFID tags as a way of saving hospital time and money, but identity card opponents have said that the measure means treating patients "like boxes of bandages".

Dismissing government claims on cost savings and past success as "purely anecdotal", anti-identity card campaigner and head of NO2ID Phil Booth said there was little evidence that Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and bar codes would fix the NHS's claimed £2bn cost of mistaken identity.

"At present errors, many of which are caused by getting the patient identity wrong, cost the NHS around £2bn in extra bed days," said a statement from the Department of Health on the proposal to use the identifiers. "Auto-identification could make a significant impact on this cost."

But Booth said he was "very suspicious of the £2bn figure on losses". "Precisely how much of this is down to misidentification of patients? And if it's so much, then why the hell haven't they fixed it before now? If they gave an accurate figure for extra bed-time due to misidentification, would it reveal that the cost/benefit really isn't there?"

The Department of Health has agreed a set of standards on which all future NHS ID systems will operate, and has released a statement saying that the NHS and patients will benefit from bar coding technology.

"This document sets out a clear case for the use of auto identification and capture technology by industry and the NHS in order to save lives, reduce mistakes, and improve efficiency," said Health Minister Lord Hunt.

"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," said the Department of Health statement.

The department announced a deal with GS1UK to use the GS1 coding system for bar codes and RFID tags. It is not mandating the use of tags, but is recommending them and recommending the adoption of a common technical standard.

As an example of good practice, the statement singled out Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham, which has used RFID bracelets to identify patients. RFID is still a controversial technology when used in human identification, because many systems have been shown to beam a person's identity to chip readers other than those belonging to operator of the system.

Booth, though, said that the whole operation exemplified what he sees as the current Government's apparent desire to "RFID everything in sight".

"I'm still not convinced that even a single-purpose bar-coded wristband plus printers, scanners, etc. would be more cost effective or risk-reducing than redesigning the bands themselves to be filled in more legibly," said Booth. "Has the Department of Health done proper comparative trials? The Heartlands Trust stuff quoted is just anecdotal, and the case study is about supply chain, not healthcare. It is really great to hear we're going to be treating patients like boxes of bandages and bottles of pills."

The Department released the information about the technology when launching a new report called Coding for Success: simple technology for safer patient care.

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