Bar coding, long used in manufacturing, is making its way into the health care arena. Good thing, since, as Peter Wenzel puts it, "we today track a steering wheel going to Toyota better than we track [hospital patients]."

Wenzel should know. The president of Union Township's General Data Co. spent three years with key employees, resear-ching and developing what the company calls its latest "identification solution products" for the health care industry.

Figuring the health care industry was bound to soon adopt bar coding, "we went down this path of developing this product," Wenzel says of his company's new PersonalID patient wristband, which includes a bar code identifier and the patient's photo.

Their timing proved prophetic.

"Three years ago, parallel to this effort, the [Food and Drug Administra-tion] looked at problems in the medical market and decided the time was right," to require bar coding to reduce risks of medication errors, says Ralph Moher, director of corporate marketing and communications for General Data. In 2000, the Institute of Medicine reported that between 44,000 and 98,000 people die in hospitals each year from preventable medical errors.

The FDA rule calls for linear bar codes to be included on certain over-the-counter drugs and most prescription drugs, down to the "unit dose," which is the amount dispensed to a patient. In hospitals, a caregiver will scan the patient's bar-coded wristband, then scan the intended medication's bar code to ensure the drug, dose, and method of delivery are correct. If any of it is wrong, the system alerts the caregiver.

General Data's new PersonalID patient wristband also features a photo of the patient, taken at the time of registration or from a driver's license or passport, in the case of emergency admissions. The high-resolution photos are imprinted on the wristband using a portable thermal printer that does not require toner or a printer ribbon. That eliminates the obvious hassle of replacing toner or destroying used ribbons, which compromise pat-ient security by retaining their personal information, Moher notes.

The photo wristband will help correctly identify patients, especially in instances where patients have the same name. An infant's wristbands will include their photo and their mother's photo to ensure security and that the right baby goes to the right mother for nursing, for example.

So far, General Data has taken orders for more than a million of its Per-sonalID wristbands in California, Michigan, and North Carolina, Moher says.

General Data also supplies the software to support the new bar code-based information system.

With bar codes, the patient wristband, once a low-tech tool, now is the first link in the data-entry-automation chain. "Our band is where the rubber meets the road," Wenzel says.