No More Code Red: Conemaugh And Other Health Systems Using Plain Language In ER

Jul 4, 2019

Conemaugh Health System is moving away from color codes – like Code Red or Code Blue – to signal emergencies, and instead will use plain language codes: a short description of the emergency and location. Experts say standardizing codes is a national trend, though Maryland is the only state with rules on uniform health care emergency codes. 

A 2015 study published by the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Advisory found that across the state, a wide range of terms was used to describe a handful of emergencies. For example, there were 15 different codes for a disruptive or combative person and 12 for a missing patient.

Ben Policicchio, Conemaugh's director of architectural planning and design and a safety officer, said there were differences within the system's hospitals as well.

"It was kind of difficult for the staff, because they would hear different enunciations at all four hospitals," Policicchio said. "It just made a lot of sense for us to go the route of a plain language code."

Under the new system, a fire emergency will go from a "Code Red" to a "fire alert" followed by the location of the fire.

Tom Grace, emergency preparedness consultant for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said the goal of plain language codes is to eliminate confusion for hospital staff, patients and visitors.

"It's a trend that's just starting to take hold in our area," Grace said. "To my knowledge, [Conemaugh] is an early adopter in that part of the state."

Grace said the Association doesn't know how many hospitals use plain language in Pennsylvania.

Many federal departments and national organizations endorse plain language as a best practice for emergency situations, including the U.S. Department of Human Services and the Emergency Nurses Association.

David Farcy, president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, said the Association doesn't endorse plain language over other policies, but did echo that it is a growing trend.

"We feel that each institution needs to use whatever they feel would be easier for the staff and the patients and visitors to understand," Farcy said.