BACKGROUND: Bar code technology has decreased transcription errors in many healthcare applications. However, we have found that linear bar code identification methods are not failsafe. In this study, we sought to identify the sources of bar code decoding errors that generated incorrect patient identifiers when bar codes were scanned for point-of-care glucose testing and to develop solutions to prevent their occurrence. METHODS: We identified misread wristband bar codes, removed them from service, and rescanned them by using 5 different scanner models. Bar codes were reprinted in pristine condition for use as controls. We determined error rates for each bar code-scanner pair and manually calculated internal bar code data integrity checks. RESULTS: As many as 3 incorrect patient identifiers were generated from a single bar code. Minor bar code imperfections, failure to control for bar code scanner resolution requirements, and less than optimal printed bar code orientation were confirmed as sources of these errors. Of the scanner models tested, the Roche ACCU-CHEK® glucometer had the highest error rate. The internal data integrity check system did not detect these errors. CONCLUSIONS: Bar code-related patient misidentifications can occur. In the worst case, misidentified patient results could have been transmitted to the incorrect patient medical record. This report has profound implications not only for point-of-care testing but also for bar coded medication administration, transfusion recipient certification systems, and other areas where patient misidentifications can be life-threatening. Careful control of bar code scanning and printing equipment specifications will minimize this threat to patient safety. Ultimately, healthcare device manufacturers should adopt more robust and higher fidelity alternatives to linear bar code symbologies.
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