What Do Healthcare Delivery Innovation and the Product Barcode Have in Common? More Than You Might Think

By | December 5, 2018

One of the books I’m reading now that I’m finding absolutely fascinating is Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, a book published last year by Tim Harford, a journalist and economist whose previous books include The Undercover Economist and The Undercover Economist Strikes Back. In this case, Harford delves into the histories of such taken-for-granted staples of modern life as the gramophone, clocks, infant formula, TV dinners, video games, razor blades, elevators, and double-entry bookkeeping.

One of the riveting chapters is on the scannable product barcode, something that members of the 21st-century consumer society absolutely take for granted. I’m actually old enough to remember the 1960s, when a trip to the grocery store meant standing in line as cashiers typed in the prices of all the items in everyone’s shopping baskets. And yes, for those who weren’t around back then, it absolutely did take much longer!

In any case, the story of the development of the scannable product barcode is far more complicated than one might imagine, and involved two different parties: a young graduate student at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia named Joseph Woodland, and the Administrative Systems Committee of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. First, very briefly, Woodland, who was a graduate student in 1948, was contemplating the challenge from a local retailer on how to speed up checkout at his stores. On a visit to his grandparents in Florida, Woodland “sat on Miami Beach and pondered the problem, idly comb[ing] his fingers in a circle, letting the sand slide between his fingers. But as he looked down at the ridges and furrows, a thought struck him. Just as Morse code used dots and dashes to convey a message, he could use thin lines and thick lines to encode information. A zebra-striped bull’s eye could describe a product and its price in a code that a machine might be able to read.”

Unfortunately, “The idea was workable, but with the technology of the time it was costly. But as computers advanced and lasers were invented, it became more realistic,” Harford notes. “The striped-scan system was independently rediscovered and refined several times over the years.” Meanwhile, in 1969, Grocery Manufacturers of America technological experts met in September 1969 to discuss the subject of a trans-industry product code. There was bickering and infighting about exactly what kind of code to jointly sponsor, and it took years of negotiations among grocery chain executives to hammer out an agreement. Then, as Harford writes, “Both stories came to fruition in June 1974 at the checkout counter of a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, when a thirty-one-year-old checkout assistant named Sharon Buchanan scanned a ten-pack of fifty sticks of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum across a laser scanner, automatically registering the price of 67 cents. The gum was sold. The bar code had been born.”

Fast-forwarding all of this to the present, and of course, it’s impossible to imagine what retail sales would be like now in 2018, without the scannable barcode. That basic technology underlies so much—not only the convenience of the store checkout process, but all the core inventory, stocking, replenishment, and data analytics processes around all goods sold in a retail context. So much that we take for granted would simply not be possible.

But what struck me about this particular story among more than 20 in Harford’s book, is how collaborative the process ended up being, that led to the adoption of the commerce-wide scannable product barcode. Yes, Joseph Woodland first came up with the concept as early as 1948; but then numerous others came up with it independently; and ultimately, it required the coalescing of industry leaders around a technical set of standards, and cooperation to produce the initial adoption of technology.

Indeed, the reality is that virtually every “technological” breakthrough of the past couple of decades has involved human collaboration, including teamwork at key moments along the way. And that certainly is true of the healthcare industry right now in the United States.

And that understanding of the criticality of collaboration, indeed of team-ness, has been a core element in our Healthcare Informatics Innovator Awards Program for a decade now.

Once again, we at Healthcare Informatics have chosen to open our website for submissions to our Innovator Awards Program. As always, it is a great privilege and pleasure for us to sponsor this program. And as many readers know, the concept of team-base recognition, which began with the 2009 edition of the program, has encompassed numerous sets of multiple winning teams that our publication has recognized for their achievements across a very broad range of areas.

As it always does, the Healthcare Informatics Innovator Awards Program recognizes leadership teams from patient care organizations—hospitals, medical groups, integrated health systems, and other healthcare organizations—that have effectively deployed information technology in order to improve clinical, administrative, financial, or organizational performance.

The Innovators Program, as it has in the last few years, also recognizes vendor solution providers who are asked to describe their core products or services in five brand new categories this year. For the first time, we are asking vendors to submit their innovation in one of five critical health IT areas: Data Security; Value-Based Care; Revenue Cycle Management; Data Analytics; and Patient Engagement.

Here is the link to the microsite within our website, for more information on both tracks of our program.

At Healthcare Informatics, we are honored to be able to showcase these kinds of case studies from both providers and vendors; the achievements that they express exemplify the core of what we hope to encourage in U.S. healthcare today. At a time of extraordinary change in healthcare, now is as great a time as ever to showcase your innovations. Please consider submitting an entry to our program, and good luck in your entry!

And, in this, I truly believe that it is through these kinds of cooperative teamwork that the biggest breakthroughs take place in all industries and fields of endeavor. It is our honor at Healthcare Informatics to be able to showcase successful collaborations in the healthcare/healthcare IT space. Who knows which advances might potentially prove to be the gateways to entirely new ways of doing things in U.S. healthcare? I’m certain that, back on that beach in 1948, Joseph Woodland could scarcely have imagined how his idea would revolutionize business and commerce forever.

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