Although barcodes were developed above all for stock management, they have found many uses. Tracking postal packages, especially those transported by express couriers, is an example. Freight forwarding is another. Yet another use we rarely think about is in hospitals.

We’re sure you’ve seen it though. When you have blood or other clinical tests done, the nursing staff have sheets of barcode stickers that correspond to you that they apply to the test tubes or papers that concern you. They enable a more secure link between the patient and the specimen or results.

Some institutions even use these codes to track patients. The handwritten bracelet we used to see has now been replaced by a bracelet with a barcode as well as the name.

Before you start feeling like a postal package, think about the fact that these codes guarantee the information concerning you stays intact and whole, thereby ensuring that two patients with the same name don’t get mixed up, as happened with the French patient whose baby was aborted by mistake.

In Quebec, where the chances of having the same name and date of birth as someone else are fairly high, I’m sure we’d all prefer to avoid the same sort of identity mix-up problems as Isabelle X (article in French) and others have experienced.

You also see barcodes used at the pharmacy. They encrypt the name of the drug, the batch number and the expiration date. In hospitals where there is a central pharmacy, and drugs are distributed by cart, barcodes and portable scanners ensure that patients and remedies are matched up correctly.

Another application, thought up by researchers at the University of Michigan, is with surgical instruments, especially swabs. The aim is to avoid leaving them inside patients. With a hand scanner, the swabs can be counted much more quickly and precisely than manually – especially when staff are tired from hours in the operating theatre – and the risk of losing some is therefore reduced. I don’t know whether I should be reassured by this new development, or worried by the fact that it’s needed!

Do you know any other less obvious applications of barcodes? Let us know below.