October 29, 2015 |

Barcodes: quenching a thirst for data

You may see a simple geometric pattern, but at PATH, we see a technology with great global health potential.
Young girl holding a water bottle.
Originally designed for use in the food industry, the use of barcodes has great global health potential. Photo: PATH/Amy MacIver.

You are thirsty and walk into your local corner store to pick up a bottle of water. The clerk scans the barcode on the bottle and announces the price; you pay, leave the store, and drink your water. The story may end there for you, but it is just the start for the data stored in that barcode, which is being recorded in the store’s inventory database and communicated to distributors and suppliers across the supply chain.

Barcodes are now a ubiquitous technology applied across the food industry around the world, saving time, improving accuracy, and allowing tracking from manufacturer to consumer.

So, if we can do it with food, why not with something equally essential to the health and well-being of people, like vaccines? Well, we are.

An adult cradles a child who is receiving an immunization from a health care worker.
Along with barcodes, Tanzania is changing health care policies and practices to support data use and decision-making. Photo: PATH/Brian Taliesin.

How PATH is using barcodes in Tanzania

The Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare has long seen the value in automating the data capture of essential health commodities. And with support from vaccine manufacturers, Gavi,  the Vaccine Alliance, UNICEF, GS1 (a neutral, not-for-profit, international organization that develops and maintains standards for supply and demand chains), and a host of others, we are well on our way to tracking and tracing where and when vaccines are used across the country.

Previously, health care workers dutifully transcribed the lot numbers and expiry dates from the vaccine packaging to paper ledgers, recording each use, transfer, and monthly inventory. Not only was the process cumbersome, it was fraught with copy errors. Regardless of the accuracy of the information, this data was locked on paper, preventing the ministry from knowing of a pending stock-out or expiration.

Stacks of paper files on a desk and in shelving units.
The introduction of barcode technology across health systems will eventually help make stacks of handwritten paper records a thing of the past. Photo: PATH/Brian Taliesin.

In the summer of 2014, PATH successfully tested the use of barcodes from their arrival in the country all the way down to distribution to the facilities. Now, barcode functionality has been added to the national logistics management information system, and vaccine manufacturers are adding the World Health Organization preferred barcode characteristics to the vaccine packaging.

And while this new application of a standard technology is having significant impact, the true innovation is in how people throughout the health system are changing policies and practices to support data use and decision-making, saving the lives of thousands and thousands of women, men, and children.

Soon, with the push of one button, health care workers will be able to record the thirst for vaccine from their local store. This simple scan will announce the value the country places on eliminating vaccine-preventable diseases, providing the data needed to make sure lifesaving medicines and supplies reach even the most rural facilities when and where they are needed.

Journey of innovation logo.This post is part of Mapping the Journey, a multipart series which explores how PATH turns ideas into solutions that bring equity, dignity, and health to women, children, and families worldwide.

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  • Brian Taliesin is a senior program officer and system analyst with the Digital Health Solutions Program at PATH.