Guest Column | April 16, 2020

Using Barcodes To Track More Than Just Medical Devices

By Chloe Hahn, Dynamsoft

Data Collection And Mobility News From November 2014

Barcodes have long been relied upon in the healthcare industry to help reduce medical errors. They are a requirement for medical devices, but they also can be used across all types of medical assets to give healthcare organizations greater insight and control over how, when and by whom devices or equipment are used.

FDA Requirements For Barcodes On Medical Devices

The U.S. FDA has an established rule for the use of a Unique Device Identification (UDI) for medical devices. It requires that medical devices be marked with a UDI on the label and package of a device. It further identifies that this UDI is a barcode.

The primary goal for this requirement was to identify a device and key attributes that affect its safe and effective use. Ultimately, this was to reduce medical errors from misuse of incorrectly identified devices or confusion concerning how they should be used. These same barcodes can be used by healthcare organization technical staff to inventory the devices. But expanding the use of barcodes can provide even greater efficiencies and insight across many healthcare operations.

Common Barcode Uses

Barcodes are already widely used for their convenience with inventory management. They offer sought-after efficiencies in making sure the correct product is ordered from a select supplier, and more. With inventory management, you also can use barcodes to reduce waste. This can be done by tracking expiration dates. In this way, products can be cataloged for use by expiration date so older products are consumed before newer ones.

In addition, barcode data can be used for a greater understanding of purchases. For example, usage patterns can emerge allowing you to better determine the importance of purchasing and restocking certain products over others. It is this kind of insight that can be extended to view even entire rooms and what’s in them as logical assets.

Tracking Beyond Medical Devices

A hospital or other healthcare facility can use barcodes to treat any item in a patient room as an IT asset. Such items can include patient monitors, EKG machines, and defibrillators. This can be extended to non-technical devices too, such as hospital stretchers, surgical lights, even an entire patient room. Each of these devices can be assigned a UDI that can be read with a barcode scanner. With the appropriate information assigned to devices, healthcare organizations can experience productivity improvements.

For example, if a UID is affixed to a room, a barcode scan can pull up all the devices that are in the room. You can create drill-down options too, such as to reveal an item’s related invoice, the vendor from which it was purchased, and more.

Now, a simple room scan can determine which vendor to contact to replace the broken EKG machine, whether it’s still under warranty or not, and even the vendor’s contact information. Meanwhile, you might also see in that profile’s room that the stretcher has been removed and needs to be returned before the next scheduled admittance. Or, maybe you stock each room with 3 boxes of gauze and a scan reveals you only have one remaining, prompting you to restock.

In many cases, such information must be manually acquired with physical checks. Networking these logical assets can provide levels of efficiencies. Now you might see that 25 percent of rooms are short on gauze leading to an insight gain you need to find more suppliers.

Creating A Barcode Scan Solution For The Team

For healthcare technology teams tasked with implementing barcode technology, the first consideration is deciphering which staff and external partners will be impacted. Their collaboration might be needed to ensure success.

It’s important to involve such key participants early in the process to gain insight into what information is vital to their using barcodes. By involving them before even building the application, they gain a sense of ownership. This can result in uncovering useful features and greater user adoption and internal championing of the use of barcodes.

It’s also important they are involved at all application milestones, from concept to planning and implementing, to testing and deployment. And it’s a good idea to keep in touch after implementation to learn about possible improvements that can be made or new desired features.

Barcode Symbol Considerations

There are two major barcode types. A 1D barcode is a one-dimensional linear barcode made up of vertical lines that vary in width. A 2-D barcode encodes data in square or rectangular patterns and generally stores more data than 1-D barcodes. The downside to 2-D codes is that they can require more complex scanning devices.

The Direct Part Marking (DPM) barcode symbol is common for medical devices and they are made of dots rather than lines or squares. They are etched directly on a device rather than with a sticker or printed bar code affixed to something. As a result, DPM barcodes present unique challenges for barcode readers.

A DPM’s color and contrast are often an obstacle to scan because the background and foreground colors are usually similar. So, the scanner must rely on shadows to decode it. Also, the size of dots can vary as can how far apart they are spaced. This lack of uniformity adds to the difficulty in scanning them. There are also surface obstacles, such as textured, reflective, uneven or curved surfaces that can give scanners trouble.

Using A Software Development Kit

When developers seek to optimize their barcode scanning for such scenarios, it can be very tasking. This is often why developers arrive at making buy-versus-build decisions. For example, developers can opt to build barcode recognition from scratch or to buy an off-the-shelf software development kit (SDK) that can be essentially dropped in place.

SDKs are common to use since they save time, money and resources. After all, there is a lot to research and understand even before starting to code for barcode technology. It can mean months of additional work. There are also long-term issues to worry about. This can include re-coding to support barcode technology as standards change.

When using an SDK often the process can be as simple as copying and pasting code into a file location. Then specific files are installed on a computer or server for that code to call on to conduct a specific action.

But some developer teams will still choose to code and build their solution from scratch. Often the reason is to fully own the code, or for competitive or proprietary reasons. It also can be that they failed to find an ideal SDK or one they can customize to their liking.

Once Implemented

Developers understand that creating the solution is just the beginning. It marks the shift from planning and programming to customer service and updating. Therefore, staying in touch with those frontline healthcare users is important, to understand how the bar code technology is performing and adapt as needed.

Barcodes are relied upon for efficiencies across many industries. The healthcare industry is arguably one of the leading adopters of barcode technology. Here, they do more than provide reliable methods to boost productivity – they also can save lives by helping avoid medical errors.

But proper implementation and use are vital. Getting users of the technology involved early in development helps ensure success. It also creates a positive attitude for adopting and championing the use of the technology.

About The Author

Chloe Hahn is the director of marketing and sales at Dynamsoft, a software company focusing on image processing solutions. She leads all digital initiatives, including market positioning, pricing strategy and more. Chloe also develops the company’s strategic sales plans.