Barcodes help hospitals keep track of their tools
An electronic barcode system is helping hospitals to keep track of surgical tools - and even to work out when equipment has been left inside a patient's body.
Under the system, introduced in five public hospitals over the past year, every set of equipment is given a barcode to track information such as who has handled the equipment and where it was sterilised.
When staff notice a piece missing, the system enables them to trace its history - and likely whereabouts - within a minute. Previously, staff had to wade through manual records, which took much longer.
The new system helps staff to confirm whether the equipment has been dropped somewhere, or in some cases, whether it has been left inside a patient's body following surgery. It also enables them to track down equipment that has been exposed to pathogens which cannot be killed by the usual sterilisation process.
The system is set to be used by all 23 public hospitals with surgical theatres within two years.
"The main highlight of the system is to enhance patients' safety," said Mike Tong Chin-ip, ward manager of the Prince of Wales Hospital's sterile supply unit. The hospital was one of the first three - alongside Queen Mary Hospital and United Christian Hospital - to introduce the system a year ago.
The Prince of Wales Hospital has more than 3,000 sets of surgical equipment featuring 30,000 pieces. Previously staff would have to consult six manual record books to trace them. But the 30 sets of these books have now been replaced by the electronic system.
Throughout all public hospitals, in the first nine months of last year, six cases of instrument or material retention in patients were reported, while there were 12 in the same period in 2012.
The new system also helps staff check and pack the tools for future use by showing images of the tools on computer screens.
Tong estimated that mistakes in equipment packing had been halved by the new system. Regarding situations in which either wrong or faulty equipment had been packed, he warned: "The implications could be very big when it's about a patient in a surgical theatre."