The government has recommended barcoding technology adhering to international standards for implementation throughout the National Health Service (NHS) in England.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, Minister of State for Quality at the Department of Health, launched a policy document this week issuing guidance for the use of auto-identification and data capture technologies across the NHS.

The minister recommended that, in order to reap the benefits of such technologies, both industry and the NHS should use the GS1 system of coding administered by the standards body, GS1 UK.

A number of healthcare trusts are already using auto-identification including Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, Charing Cross Hospital and Royal Free NHS Trust. Others are implementing pilots and training courses prior to putting new technologies into practice.

The move is designed to enable the NHS gain benefits in a number of areas as a result of standardised automated identification. For example, a barcoded wristband and reader can be used to verify the patient's identity at any time, and to ensure that the right patient is about to receive the right treatment. Errors, many of which are caused by getting the patient identity wrong, currently cost the NHS around £2 billion in extra bed days.

GS1 said other areas in which patients are likely to benefit include surgical instrument sterilisation, where small barcodes can enable the automatic identification of which instruments have been sterilised and when. Drug batch numbers and expiry dates can also be tracked automatically, ensuring that old or faulty batches do not enter circulation. Dosage and frequency will be linked directly to patient records.

Gary Lynch, GS1 UK chief operating officer said: "Standardising its identification process is a key component in securing patient safety across the NHS. Working with the NHS on this initiative is a major step forward for both of our organisations."

GS1 is an independent global standards body which provides its members with an international system of unique identification numbering, already used widely in the pharmaceutical, retail and supply chains sectors. These numbers are generally applied via barcodes and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.