If you think that bar codes are pretty useless, think again. The man behind local product bar coding, GS1 Malta CEO David Calleja Urry says bar coding can save people’s lives. To date, Mater Dei does not recode generic pills. By DAVID DARMANIN
As consumers, we often take for granted the tremendous amount of back office work that goes into a product before it is placed on shelves. If for instance, you are a foodstuffs manufacturer or packager, it is highly unlikely for a supermarket to purchase your product before it passes through sanitary checks, pasteurisation, proper packaging and labelling along with a long list of other standard legal requirements.
Furthermore, most local supermarkets will place requirements that are not necessarily mandatory by Maltese law. In most cases, supermarkets will neither purchase nor re-sell packaged products unless they carry a bar code. It would not be illegal to issue a non-bar coded product in Malta, but it is simply not done.
Bar coding a product is an integral part of the most widely used system on the global scale used to track and identify a specific product by supplying it with a unique code. This way, billing becomes easier, stock-taking becomes more accurate, pilferage is reduced and most importantly, if something goes wrong with the product - the re-seller will know whom it has been sold to and by whom it has been supplied.
The bar-coding concept was first developed by UCC in 1973 in the US, followed by EAN for Europe in 1975. But in 2005, the two have merged into one global organisation and, operating under the name GS1, they have since been responsible for every single bar code that is issued legally worldwide.
Because it would otherwise constitute a worldwide monopoly, GS1 can only operate as a non-profit organisation, funded by companies which register as members so they are allowed to use bar codes and other GS1 standards.
GS1’s global management board is made up of so many big shots that Opus Dei is put to shame.
David Calleja Urry, GS1 Malta’s CEO sits on the same board with North America’s Coca-Cola President, DHL’s CEO, Procter and Gamble’s COO, Nestle’s Operations Vice-President and Kraft Foods Senior International Vice-Presidents among others.
After every board meeting, Calleja Urry returns to his office to manage a miniscule team of six, albeit a very dedicated one.
“Although Malta is likely to be the country with most GS1 members per capita, we are probably the smallest in terms of funds, because the market here is so small,” Calleja Urry started. “Recruiting more manufacturing firms for bar code use is not on the cards, because we are pretty much at saturation point. Instead, we have to find new ways of diversifying, of extending our work to areas such as health care, and traceability amongst others.
“We learnt this strategy from Americans, who are known to be very aggressive in this particular market. But ultimately, if your product portfolio is made of only one service, you cannot possibly grow,” he said.
Calleja Urry’s background is in sales and marketing management, mostly in food and beverage blue chip brands.
“In the course of my career, I got automatically involved in European Article Numbering (EAN) – as Europe’s product numbering authority was formerly known. But when the American and European organisations amalgamated in 2005, I was approached to head the Malta office. Our brief was to instil a new attitude, and I think we are very much on the right track,” he said.
Since the start of his post at GS1, Calleja Urry was pushed up to the highest levels of the global organisation, and apart from being a member of the international management board, he is also responsible for GS1’s activity in the African and Middle Eastern regions.
“In 2006, GS1 Malta organised the general assembly here in Malta. We hosted 400 delegates from 85 countries, and although the event put a strain on our reserves, I can proudly say that we succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations,” he said.
GS1’s resourcefulness starkly contrasts with its available resources, and this makes it very Maltese in character. The organisation is made up of approximately 330 members who pay an annual membership fee of anything between €115 and €700.
330 members is quite considerable when taking into account that there are no more than 50 large enterprises in Malta, and these are all affiliated with GS1. This effectively means that 280 GS1 members are SMEs and small budget operations – which are typically the least likely to be convinced with investment in non-mandatory standards.
They may have managed to convince the bakers, but when it comes to other sectors like healthcare, EDI, and traceability, progress has been somewhat slower and GS1 Malta is still working very hard to introduce a number of services to the different sectors.
Healthcare for GS1 has become a major sector over the last few years. There are a number of global issues which are being tackled by a GS1 Healthcare User Group that was specifically set up and is made up of global pharmaceutical and medical devices manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors, group purchasing organisations, hospitals, pharmacies, government and regulatory bodies and associations.
“GS1 Standards in Healthcare help improve patient safety, enable global traceability and improve supply chain efficiency” Calleja Urry commented. “We can help to ensure the 5 patient rights: the right product for the right patient in the right dose at the right time by the right route” he added.
No hospital is infallible. A number of patients are injured or end up dying because of mistakes in diagnosis or maladministration of medication. It is a fact that a substantial number of patients globally are affected by adverse drug events, and statistics for this are available in most westernised countries. No such data is available for Malta.
“In a hospital in Kenya, a patient was operated for tumour after he was admitted with a knee injury. His namesake was operated in the knee after he was diagnosed with tumour,” Calleja Urry said. “The National Health Service in the UK have now started bar coding patients to increase patient safety. It is as easy as scanning the medication and counter-scanning the patient, the software will then collect the data and limit the damage done by possible mistakes.”
Then again, in the UK, fatalities caused by mistakes in hospital treatment number an average of sixty a day.
“There is no way of accurately quantifying the problem locally, we just know that it probably happens like it does everywhere else.” he said.
Annually, New Zealand claims 150 lives of patients who have not been given the right treatment and 5000 are affected by mistakes.
“With New Zealand using a very similar health system to ours, and it having a population of around 4 million, can we quantify the problem for Malta? If this is the case, we can certainly help to reduce these problems,” he explained.
“We are not saying that by introducing GS1 Healthcare Standards to local hospitals we are likely to get the problem down to zero, but we will certainly reduce it.“
A coding system for use in local healthcare will not come for free, as it would certainly require an investment of some sort in hardware, software and consultancy.
“Membership with GS1 will only cost them a couple of thousands a year, and it can be taken in stages. Certainly, hardware and software will have to be bought at an expense, and the equipment cannot be supplied by GS1. The amount is minimal when compared to what the investment can achieve.”
It is quite incredible how the Health Ministry hasn’t thought of this system before… state of the art my foot. But Calleja Urry, although disappointed by the slow progress on this issue, does not want to enter into polemics. He remains calm and objective, and responds to no provocation from journalists.
“The thing is that patients are in a different frame of mind than consumers. At supermarkets, shoppers have every opportunity to check that the product they are about to purchase is in good condition. They may check the expiry date, the labelling and the ingredients. They have time for it. Patients on the other hand, want to get cured so they trust blindly. Do they have a choice? When you factor in the fact that hospitals are usually under-staffed and on many occasions doctors and nurses are tired, we can safely say that hospitals unfortunately do make mistakes. Something needs to be done to limit the damage,” he said.
Emphasising that on no account do they want to turn this issue “into a drama”, Calleja Urry said that although GS1 Malta has been working on this sector for the last two years, “very little progress has been made”.
“This goes beyond profitability, that’s what we’re here for. We’re not a business organisation,” said Calleja Urry.
Finally, the healthcare services being offered in addition to the other new services from GS1 should also see the development of the portfolio of services bringing the local office in line with other Member Organisation under the GS1 Global umbrella.