"Code Blue" "Code Black," What Does "Code" Mean?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD

"Code Red" "Code Blue", "Code Black"...people sometimes wonder what these terms mean if they happen to hear them used in a hospital (or more likely, hear them used on a TV series about doctors). The ABC TV series "Grey's Anatomy" seems to have sparked a renewed interest in the topic of "Codes" in medicine with their 2006 episode entitled "Code Black".

Technically, there's no formal definition for a "Code", but doctors often use the term as slang for a cardiopulmonary arrest happening to a patient in a hospital or clinic, requiring a team of providers (sometimes called a "code team") to rush to the specific location and begin immediate resuscitative efforts.

Each hospital or clinic can decide how it wishes to manage and inform staff of potential emergencies. Many institutions use colors (e.g. "Code Red", "Code Blue") to identify specific types of emergencies. "Code Red" and "Code Blue" are both terms that are often used to refer to a cardiopulmonary arrest, but other types of emergencies (for example bomb threats, terrorist activity, child abductions, or mass casualties) may be given "Code" designations too. Colors, numbers, or other designations may follow a "Code" announcement to identify the type of emergency that is occurring.

Some hospitals announce emergencies ("Codes") over a public address system, while others just alert the necessary personnel via a pager system. Also, the use of the term "Code" to signify that an emergency is occurring is not limited to medical practice. Other institutions, such as office buildings, schools, or government facilities may use "Code" designations to alert personnel that an emergency is occurring.