Hospital codes are short phrases—usually named after colors—that health care workers use to talk about serious issues quickly and clearly. Codes are an easy way to ensure all workers are using the same terms—an especially important task because hospitals employ large staffs that work varying shifts. By using a common language, workers can respond to emergency situations quickly, reduce errors, and improve care at the same time. Codes are also useful in alerting staff without alarming visitors and patients.
While there is no national standard for hospital codes in the United States, these are some of the most commonly used hospital codes and their meanings:
Named for abducted child Amber Hagerman, whose murder inspired the nationwide AMBER Alert system (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response), Code Amber is most often applied to suspected child or infant abduction. In some hospitals, however, it indicates a theft or armed robbery in progress within the facility.
US military hospitals and certain civilian hospitals use this code to denote mass casualties caused by epidemic or threat to public health. In the mid-west, Code Black often indicates impending severe weather, and it may also be used to alert employees of a potential on-site bomb threat, child abduction, or nuclear attack. In Alaska and Georgia, Code Black conveys that a patient was pronounced dead.
One of the more serious codes, Code Blue is used to indicate a patient needs immediate life-saving assistance, usually as the result of cardiac arrest. All available employees are required to respond immediately.
In an effort to provide additional information, the Hospital Association of Southern California recommends that Code Blue be used only for adult cases, with Code White referring to medical emergencies involving children.
Code Brown has a number of meanings, depending on hospital location. It may refer to a severe weather warning, a medical gas emergency, a missing adult within the hospital, or a patient with uncontrolled bowel issues (a health hazard). Tampa General Hospital uses Code Brown to call for autopsy.
The Hospital Association of Southern California recommends using Code Gray to convey that a violent yet unarmed person is loose within the hospital. It may also allude to a patient having a violent psychotic episode in need of restraint and/or medication. It is sometimes used to denote severe weather or emergency response for inpatient stroke.
This code has a number of uses across the US. Though it is most often used to indicate a situation where evacuation is in order, such as an internal or external disaster, it may also refer to an armed and combative person using physical force within the hospital. Code Green may also be used to call a fire drill, convey a difficult delivery in Obstetrics, or to sound the All Clear after an emergency, indicating that personnel should resume their normal duties.
Usually referring to a biohazardous contamination of a patient or employee, Code Pink may also indicate imminent birth with no physician present, an infant or child abduction, or a nurse being harassed or abused by a physician.
This code is often used to indicate that help is needed to transport a heavy patient. It may also mean that there is a lost or disoriented elderly patient within the hospital, a patient, staff, or visitor injury, or that a psychiatric emergency has occurred wherein a patient is a threat to himself or others.
Code Red most often indicates a fire within the building, though it may be used to alert staff to the impending arrival of a patient with burn injuries. It may also refer to an incoming life-threatening trauma, or that an external disaster has occurred and many casualties are on their way.
In most Southern California hospitals, Code Silver refers to a combative person with a lethal weapon. It often indicates a violent situation and potential hospital lockdown.
The Hospital Association of Southern California recommends the term Code Yellow for a bomb threat within the hospital. In many trauma centers it is used to alert the emergency response trauma team that a patient is in imminent danger of death. It may also post a sever weather alert or a bomb threat, depending on hospital location.
While Code White most often denotes a pediatric medical emergency, it may also refer to a power or utility outage, a natural disaster requiring mass evacuation, or impending ever weather.
Code Orange may indicate a bomb threat, a prisoner escape, or warning of an incident involving hazardous material within the hospital. It is also used to alert emergency medical teams of a patient whose health is rapidly declining.