#ThrowbackThursday - These Aren't Your Ordinary Bracelets

The History of Zebra's Wristband Business

A Zebra wristband on a patient's arm
by Christine Weber
June 13, 2019

Wristbands are a staple in today’s healthcare environments. But if you look back at the evolution of hospital “technologies,” you’ll see that wristbands are more of a modern accessory. Hospitals didn’t really start to mandate the use of barcoded patient identification tools until the late 1990s or early 2000s, with 2008 being a key tipping point for wristband adoption – and the rapid growth of Zebra’s wristband business.

Zebra’s First Barcoded Medical “Bracelets” – and the Push to Print More

We have been a pioneer in the barcoding world since 1969, constantly exploring new applications for the betterment of industry and society. In 1995, we started selling thermal transfer wristbands to healthcare facilities for patient identification. However, the thermal transfer printer ribbon would capture patient information during the printing process, and the wristband printer ribbons were subject to the same disposal requirements as all documents containing patient information. So, we introduced our first direct thermal wristband in 2004 to make it easier for hospitals to comply with the Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requirements ahead of the 2004 HIPAA Privacy Rule and 2006 HIPAA Security Rule deadlines. Direct thermal printers do not require the use of a ribbon.

But it wasn’t until 2008 that barcode wristbands’ permanent, widespread role in patient care was solidified. The Joint Commission’s #1 National Patient Safety Goal that year was “Improving the Accuracy of Patient Identification.” It released a requirement stating that:

1.       Healthcare personnel must check two patient identifiers when providing care, treatment or services.

2.       Caregivers need to be able to reliably identify the patient as the person for whom a service or treatment is intended, and then match the service or treatment to that patient.

Barcoded wristbands could easily accommodate two identifiers. So, that is the solution that hospitals and other healthcare facilities ultimately standardized to meet The Joint Commission’s goal.

Zebra launched the HC100 wristband printer soon after that year to benefit hospitals that were seeking efficient and sustainable ways to print thermal wristbands during patient intake. Of course, we also saw an uptick in wristband sales as hospitals gained the capacity to print the wristbands in greater volumes. Other global healthcare bodies – such as the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK – also began to implement expansive wristband use policies for patient ID.

This market demand motivated us to continue innovating.

Wristbands’ New Purpose – and Permanence

Over the years, we have made continuous improvements in the design and protective coatings of our thermal wristbands to improve image durability. For example, we introduced one of the softest thermal wristbands on the market – the Z-Band UltraSoft band – in 2012. And we’ve made updates to the coating on our wristbands to ensure they stayed scannable and readable when subjected to hospital hand sanitizers.  This prevented the need to re-band patients during their stay and nurse workarounds, something hospitals struggled with when first implementing barcoding technologies.

We also added laser-printed wristbands to our portfolio in 2012 with the acquisition of Laserband – which was perfect timing for both Zebra and its healthcare customers.

As a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, all public and private healthcare providers and other eligible professionals were required to adopt and demonstrate “meaningful use” of electronic medical records (EMR) by January 1, 2014, in order to maintain their existing Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement levels.

However, most hospitals did not have an EMR software solution at the time. Despite the growing market adoption of thermal wristbands after 2008, many facilities (at least in the U.S.) were still using hand-written or imprint style wristbands for patient identification purposes. So, these two new compliance requirements required hospitals to once again re-evaluate their processes and consider new technology (and wristband) solutions.

With both thermal-printed wristbands as well as laser-printed wristbands in our portfolio, Zebra was able to offer hospitals several easy to assemble, durable and comfortable barcoded wristband options to aid with their EMR implementations, improve positive patient identification and support the ‘5 patient rights of medication administration.’ Customers were grateful, as they needed a reliable solution that was easy and cost efficient to implement. Zebra wristbands were starting to appear on the arms of patients all over the world.

To put the impact of these two U.S.-driven healthcare initiatives into perspective: it took Zebra approximately 20 years to sell our first billion wristbands (1995-2015). It took just three more years to reach two billion (2016-2018). Most of this growth was driven by the U.S. healthcare directives, though other global regions were simultaneously following suit.

Demand for the Zebra HC100™ thermal printer also increased once again around 2014 as hospitals that were still using a standard thermal desktop printer and roll of wristbands realized that printing model was not sustainable in an EMR world.  Patient Safety Committees began to truly value Zebra’s HC100 printer solution for its simplicity and ease of use. The wristbands were delivered in a cartridge (versus a roll) for easy loading. They were also very durable: we launched the HC100 with automatic calibration and print speed and darkness settings to ensure the information printed on the wristband would remain legible the entire patient stay.

In fact, the market growth for thermal printers has been so explosive this past decade, Zebra introduced the ZD510-HC in 2018 – the next generation of the popular HC100.

What’s Next

The need for real-time, multi-system data capture and verification is mission-critical in healthcare, whether for patient safety and privacy or insurance and regulatory compliance purposes. Though some may see wristbands as a standard “hospital” accessory you receive with every visit – just like the gown and comfy socks – the truth is that wristbands are a staple to ensuring correct patient care. They’re a gateway to information systems and essential to delivering the highest quality patient experience from admissions to discharge to billing and beyond. That is why Zebra continues to invest in research and design (R&D) for wristbands and printers and beyond to this day. We understand the value that these technologies bring to healthcare administrators, clinicians and patients alike.

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Fun Fact: Zebra wristbands are also used by hospitality providers to improve customer service and manage event access, much in the same way healthcare providers use them to improve patient care and safety. For example, a hotel or resort may ask their guests to wear a wristband such as the one you see in the picture below to grant fast access to certain events and facilities. The print-on-demand barcoded amusement park and attraction wristbands – such as the Z-Band Fun and Z-Band Splash Wristband solutions – also enable cashless point of sale.

Zebra's resort wristbands
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Christine Weber
Since joining Zebra in 2006, Christine Weber has brought supplies to life for enterprises across North America and Latin America. (There is much more to thermal printing supplies than you think!) She has deep knowledge of the wide variety of labeling applications across a wide range of enterprises within Retail, Manufacturing, Healthcare and Transportation & Logistics. She is also well-versed in which supplies materials provide the most reliable performance to enable asset intelligence, including facestock, adhesives and ribbons.




















































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