Volume 5, No. 2 • Summer 1990

U.K. Rules Against (!) Vial Colour Coding

Wilson Lim, M.B., BS.

To the Editor

LookAlike Vials

My colleagues and I are interested in safe practice in medicine, in particular in anaesthesia. We found your letter in the APSF Newsletter, Volume 4, No. 3 regarding colour coding of drug ampoules very interesting indeed. We realise that tins issue has been discussed in the past but we feel that it is important to re-open the debate. We have written to the various pharmaceutical manufacturers suggesting that they should distinguish their products with colour-coded labelling.

We were amazed to be informed that the Department of Health in the United Kingdom has adopted a policy against any colour-coding of drug ampoules. The manufacturers are therefore reluctant to colour code their products as it would jeopardize their sales contracts with the National Health hospitals. One company actually colour-coded their products a few years ago but had to revert to their old labelling when they lost their contracts.

The stand of not colour-coding was taken by British authorities presumably because of the fear that this will result in lax practices with staff not reading the labels of the agents they are administering and relying excessively on the visual cues of colour. This opinion is also supported by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. This point of view appears unfounded as colour-coding is internationally used for medical gases as well as for distinguishing electrical wiring with the aim of avoiding concision. Couple this with the fact that critical incidents with the administration of incorrect medication continue to occur, we feel that this issue must once again be addressed.

We were gratified to read that standards for the colour-coding of drug ampoules are being adopted in the United States. We would like to see similar standards adopted in the United Kingdom if not internationally

Dr. Wilson Lim M.B., BS. Department of Anaesthesia Royal Hallamshire Hospital Sheffield, England