Industry Voices—Removing ban on nationwide unique patient identifier would save lives, money

Jane Doe receives Joan Doe’s cataract lens implantation.

One elderly Cantonese-speaking woman admitted to a hospital for a broken hip lies in pain overnight after being misidentified as her roommate, also an elderly Cantonese-speaking woman.

A delayed cancer diagnosis because of an identification mix-up, opioids being prescribed to a patient with a history of addiction, babies given incorrect milk—the list goes on. Those are but a few real-life examples of what can go wrong when patients are misidentified.

The statistics show that patient misidentification is common and can involve some of our most vulnerable people.

According to the 2016 National Patient Misidentification Report, 86% of nurses, physicians, and IT professionals who responded to a survey said they knew of or witnessed a medical error that was the result of patient misidentification. One study reported that patient misidentification is common in neonatal intensive care units, in some cases leading to serious medication errors.

We have an opportunity to prevent misidentifications and the sometimes tragic consequences from occurring in the future.

RELATED: House votes to lift ban on federal funding for unique patient identifier

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment that would remove a ban that has hobbled efforts to create a nationwide unique patient identifier. The Senate is now in a position to move this issue forward if they follow suit. Nothing less than patients’ lives are at stake.

Hospitals and health systems have also paid a price. For instance, the same 2016 survey found that the lack of a unique patient identifier is costing hospitals and health systems through denied claims and reduced productivity.

The respondents estimated that 35% of denied claims were directly related to inaccurate patient identification or incomplete patient information, at an average cost of $1.2 million a year. The time spent tracking down missing or incomplete patient information was placed at 30 minutes per shift—30 minutes that instead could be devoted to patient care.

Other nations have systems that safely and accurately identify their patients. The U.S., by contrast, relies on name and birth, a protocol fraught with problems.

RELATED: Health informatics leaders say it’s time for Congress to lift its ban on a unique patient identifier

What has held the U.S. back?

In 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) included this directive: “The Secretary (of Health and Human Services, or HHS) shall adopt standards providing for a standard unique health identifier for each individual, employer, health plan and health care provider for use in the health care system.” Then came language inserted in 1998 by then-Congressman Ron Paul in an appropriations bill that prohibited HHS from using funds to “promulgate or adopt any final standard … providing for the assignment of a unique health identifier for an individual.” It remains in force today.

Proponents of the ban cite privacy concerns. But the very people who have made a career of safeguarding the privacy of patients are strongly in favor of lifting the ban. Our members, who represent more than 2,900 chief information officers and senior healthcare IT executives in healthcare organizations across the U.S. and internationally, see this ban as a huge impediment to safe and affordable care and a contributor to our nation’s burgeoning healthcare costs. Many other healthcare associations agree.

We cheered when the House, in a 246-178 vote, pressed the delete key on language that for more than two decades has prevented HHS from following its mandate.

Now it is the Senate’s turn to follow their lead and protect those who are at risk—the tiny babies in neonatal units, the patients who share a name or birthday, and those who are simply victims of carelessness at the registration desk.

Leslie Krigstein is the vice president of congressional affairs at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives.