Regional patient ID pilot could be stalking horse for national rollout

The idea of a national patient identifier has gone nowhere, but a regional health information organization in the Los Angeles area has begun testing a regional patient identification system with financial help from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The Western Health Information Network (WHIN) is using the Voluntary Universal Healthcare Identifier (VUHID) system created by Tucson-based Global Patient Identifiers, Inc. (GPII). WHIN aims to help providers identify patients more accurately so they can obtain access to the right patients' records during office visits and other encounters.

At the same time, says GPII chief scientist Barry Hieb, MD, "improving the accuracy of patient identification...will lead to giving patients more control over the privacy of their information."

Most healthcare providers today use record ID numbers that are unique to a practice, hospital, or healthcare system. As a result, it's difficult to ensure, when data is exchanged between unrelated organizations, that records on the correct patients are being sent or received. Algorithms have been developed to increase the accuracy of patient identification, but they're only about 90 percent accurate.

In 2007, the now-defunct National Alliance for Health Information Technology proposed a national patient identifier as a solution to this problem. In another paper espousing this idea, the National Committee on Vital Health Statistics (NCVHS), which advises the Department of Health and Human Services, also called for a national patient identifier, saying that the spread of health IT had made the need for such an identifier "urgent and critical." Standards organizations made the same pitch during the 1990s, but all to no avail.

The problem, of course, is that the amnesiac public, forgetting it already has Social Security numbers, fears that national patient identifiers will compromise personal health information. The WHIN initiative seems to sidestep this problem by using "voluntary" identifiers and claiming they'll increase patient control of records. Will it work? We'll know when the pilot is completed a year from now.

To learn more:
- read the Healthcare IT News piece
- see the NCVHS report on national patient identifiers