Before the Next Storm: New York State Tracks Patients With Barcode Bracelets

Barcode scanning has made tracking mail packages and consumer products easy, so why not use it to keep tabs on patients during a disaster?

That's the thinking in New York state, where a new initiative called e-FINDS uses barcode bracelets and portable scanners to help health care providers and families locate patients in an emergency.

“Frito-Lay can tell you where a bag of chips is anywhere in the world,” Nicholas Cagliuso PhD, corporate director of Emergency Management at Beth Israel Medical Center and St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. But the emergency evacuations during Sandy that displaced more than 7,000 hospital and nursing home patients in New York showed Cagliuso that “we can’t find the people we’re caring for.”

Next time, things should be different.

In June, the state began distributing the barcode bracelets and scanners, said Sue Kelly, executive deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Health. As of mid-October, 2013, more than 230,000 wristbands had been handed out to hospitals and other health-care facilities throughout the state. Each bracelet each comes labeled with a unique I.D. number and the facility’s name.

In an emergency situation staff will distribute the bracelets to patients, using a keyboard to enter basic information about the patient, such as name, sex and date of birth, that is then uploaded to a central computer.

“Frito-Lay can tell you where a bag of chips is anywhere in the world...[but] we can’t find the people we’re caring for.”

If a patient is evacuated, the receiving facility can scan the barcode to read the data linked to the bracelet. The federal government uses a similar system Cagliuso said, but New York’s system is customized to tie into a statewide hospital and nursing home information system already in use. The health department uses it to alert providers to regulatory changes or send out emergency information and public health alerts.  

“In a worst case scenario, if staff had to move quickly, it would be a matter of getting the bracelets on. Then at least the receiving facility would know where the patients came from," Kelly said.

That would be a major improvement over what happened in Sandy, she said. “We heard of a lot cases where it took families days to find out where their relatives had been taken.”

Gale Scott, a writer in Cranbury, N.J., covers health care in New York and New Jersey.