The NHS is introducing the technology, which allows patients to be matched to their care via patient identification codes on wristbands, medications and equipment.
The government said the ‘case for coding is compelling’ and there was evidence of improved patient safety.
However, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association has identified a catalogue of problems with the technology that has prompted nurses to try and find ways of working round it.
Researchers looked at how the technology was being used at five hospitals, assessing around 500,000 examples of nurses and other staff scanning wristbands and medications.
Examples of problems included medication barcodes that were unreadable due to tearing or smudging, non-barcoded medications, malfunctioning scanners, missing or unreadable patient wristbands – sometimes because they had been chewed – and lost wireless connectivity.
In some cases, if a pharmacy sent two 10mg tablets for a 20mg order, the system would not accept the medication. Nurses had to override the scanning system to administer drugs to patients on 14% of occasions.
Researchers found nurses were ingenious in working around the problems.
For example, they fixed extra copies of patient ID barcodes on desks, scanning machines and clipboards.
‘It’s not that staff are lazy or careless – it’s that the system does not work as well as it should,’ said the authors.
Department of Health guidance, published last year, called on the NHS in England to adopt the GS1 barcoding standards system, which 110 hospitals have signed up to so far. The total is expected to reach 175 by the end of
Neil Lawrence, business area project manager for NHS Connecting for Health, insisted the introduction of barcode technology had been thoroughly assessed for patient safety and was progressing well.
‘The use of automatic identification and data capture (barcodes) has been picked up very quickly as everyone from manufacturers to nurses has realised the benefits,’ he said.