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Standardized Emergency Codes May Minimize ‘Code Confusion’

Hospitals use emergency codes to notify staff when immediate action is required, but different hospitals may use different codes. An adult medical emergency could be a code blue at one hospital or a code rescue, code stat, or code 99 at another facility. There are currently no standard codes used nationally, according to a new overview from the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Advisory.

Just in northeast Pennsylvania, a survey found 80 different codes in use grouped into 37 categories. This can result in code confusion among employees or emergency responders and put patients at risk.

Recently, plain language codes have been endorsed for emergency communications, based on recommendations from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency and other groups.. Here are several examples of plain language codes suggested by the Iowa Hospital Association for implementation in the state this year:

  • Event: Fire
  • Plain language code: Fire alarm + location + action required
  • Event: Acts of violence
  • Plain language code: Active shooter + location + action required
  • Plain language code: Violent intruder + location + action required
  • Event: Stroke team activation
  • Plain language code: Stroke team + location


Wallace SC; Finley E. Standardized emergency codes may minimize “code confusion”. Pennsylvania Patient Safety Advisory 12(1):1-6, Mar. 2015.

Plain language emergency codes: implementation guide. Iowa Hospital Association, 2013? http://www.ihaonline.org/Portals/0/webdocs/publications/Plain%20Language%20Document.pdf

National incident management system. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Dec. 2008, page 29. http://www.fema.gov/pdf/emergency/nims/NIMS_core.pdf

Plain language frequently asked questions (FAQs). U.S. Department of Homeland Security, June 2010. http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/PlainLanguageFAQs.pdf

Posted by AHA Resource Center (312) 422-2050, rc@aha.org

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