Barcodes have been used to price retail goods for decades, but only in the 21st century have they begun to appear on patients' ID wristbands in hospitals.
It's one of the ways hospitals are trying to reduce patient and drug mix-ups, particularly since the National Academy of Science reported in 1999 that medical errors kill about 44,000 to 98,000 people a year.
PHG Technologies of Brentwood was out of the gate early in developing barcode identification for the hospital industry.
Its primary product, EasyID, interfaces with a hospital's admissions database to enable patient information to be printed on labels that can be affixed to the wristband, medical forms and pill bottles.
By reading the label barcodes, medical professionals can verify that information is correctly matched to the patient. That information can be then transferred electronically to other applications without the need for retyping.
Today, EasyID is used in 170 hospitals in 31 states, including hospitals within the networks of Tenet Healthcare Corp. and Province Healthcare in Brentwood, PHG's president, Brian Moyer, said.
And about two-thirds of its EasyID customers also use PHG's electronic form management system. That system has enabled Province to eliminate the thousands of paper copies of 500 different forms that used to be stacked in a warehouse. Now the 500 forms reside on the computer server for printing only when needed, said Pat Walls, vice president of materials management.
She said the wristband barcode system has also worked well in all its hospitals. One Province hospital in South Carolina is now using PHG's technology to include patients' photos on wristbands and capture their electronic signatures for forms.
"It's one of those products we kind of eased into. We bought five licenses and thought we'd try it, and it just blew us away," Walls said. "This is probably one of the slickest things that's come along in a while for us."
PHG Technologies began in 1990 by providing barcode systems for hospital supplies, and developed the EasyID product in 1995.
"It was really probably about the time that that report (from the Academy of Science) came out in 1999 that we really started catching traction," Moyer said.
In the past four years the company's revenues have grown 265 percent, and since 1997 its growth rate has average 52 percent a year, Moyer said.
PHG's prospects for 2005 brightened considerably this month when it signed a distributorship agreement with The Relizon Co. of Dayton, Ohio, a leading provider of document management, billing and marketing fulfillment services.
With 90 of its 350 sales people dedicated to health care, Relizon has key contracts with some of the largest group purchasing organizations in the health-care industry, Moyer said. PHG employs about 20 people.
"So to have all these extra eyes and ears and feet out there talking to hospitals on a much more frequent basis than we could possibly do ourselves, it's going to make a huge difference," he said.
Historically, patients have worn ID bands printed from embossed cards. Moyer said the system is unreliable because often the printing gets faded and misaligned.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center still uses the embossed wristband system, said spokesman John Houser. So far it's worked well, he said, because patients must verify their identity to medical professionals. Once that happens, the hospital worker can access a portable, wireless computer that queries the hospital's database for details on the patient's medication and other treatments.
Moyer said hospitals have a new incentive to update their technologies, as the Federal Drug Administration this year began mandating the use of barcodes on most prescription drugs.
Nashville-based HCA Inc., the nation's largest publicly traded hospital company, also uses barcode wristband technology - a system called eMAR that was developed specially for its hospital network by Meditech.
Moyer said eventually hospitals will move to radio frequency identification, which embeds computer chips in the wristband. Not only does it provide the capacity for more medical information - up to 2,000 characters - but also allows the information to be read from a distance without disturbing the patient.
PHG Technologies is already equipped to provide the service, when hospitals are ready to transition to it, Moyer said. But now the system is much costlier than barcodes.