There is a push pull between patient safety and privacy advocacy groups regarding the establishment of unique patient identifiers for healthcare programs. Patient safety groups believe that a unique patient identifier will help better match patients with their electronic medical records, thereby making treatments more effective and safe. Privacy advocates see a unique, national patient identifier as a means for exposing personal and private information. To date, privacy advocates have been successful in putting pressure on Congress to block government efforts to develop unique patient identifiers. For the past 16 years, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been prohibited from spending any funds to develop such identifiers.
Budget Plan Encourages HIT Assistance with Patient Identifiers
However, a recent budget plan from the House Appropriations Committee, subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education does not specifically prohibit HHS from exploring patient matching programs; and while it does not provide permissions for HHS to develop a patient identifier, it does allow (and encourage) HHS, through CMS and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology to provide technical assistance to private-sector led efforts in this area. An HHS-assisted national patient identifier effort would look to develop an identifier that can be used for national health programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and TriCare.
An Ongoing Appropriations Process to Secure Patient Safety
The appropriations process is ongoing, and it is unknown at this time whether this new language on patient identifiers will be in the final, approved bill by the House and Senate. However, the fact that better patient data matching is recognized as a need in the age of electronic health records is a big step forward for patient safety groups.
Patient Identifiers Stand to Improve Patient Safety
Should the patient identifier language stick, and should CMS pursue partnership with the private sector in progressing this effort, they will likely be encouraged by the technical advances already made by private sector companies that have created patient identifier solutions using biometrics, electronic government identification matching and advanced patient verification methods. These solutions, currently being adopted by hospitals and commercial health plans, not only markedly improve patient safety by ensuring the patient is matched with their correct records, but they also provide a means to eliminate healthcare fraud claims resulting from medical identity theft and phantom billing.