ONC to target mailing address standardization in patient matching initiative

Focusing on something as simple as a mailing address may sound mundane.

However, it's one of the key elements often used for the purposes of linking records, wrote Steven Posnack, deputy of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), in a blog post Tuesday.

Starting in 2021, the ONC will launch an initiative called Project US@ to create a unified, industrywide healthcare specification for representing mailing addresses within the year, he said. Getting cross-industry agreement around how to standardize patient addresses in healthcare documents could be a big step forward in improving patient matching, Posnack said.

The project is being launched in collaboration with Health Level 7 (HL7), the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs (NCPDP) and X12, as well as other standards development organizations, he said. Members of the Health Standards Collaborative have also agreed to develop a unified specification for address in healthcare.

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Among the many standards stewarded by HL7, NCPDP and X12 are fields for address, but the approach to represent the data is typically left to the implementer to decide, Posnack wrote. Without specific constraints, implementers use a variety of free and commercial third-party tools, resources and other methods.

"Project US@ is reflective of how subtle improvements in health IT can have a big impact when implemented at a national scale," he said. "By doing this together, we will be able to establish a lasting, industry-wide approach to representing patient address that is consistent across a spectrum of clinical and administrative transactions."

The initiative received praise Tuesday evening from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which has been pushing for federal officials, including Congress, to promote improved patient matching. A Pew report (PDF) released in 2018 said standardizing the data healthcare providers collect is likely to have the broadest impact on improving patient matching.

“This initiative from ONC represents a significant step towards better patient matching, one that builds on research that shows that standardizing addresses could help link thousands of records a day that otherwise wouldn’t be," said Ben Moscovitch, project director of health IT at The Pew Charitable Trusts, in a statement. "Targeted, bipartisan changes like these are some of the most effective near-term opportunities to improve matching and help get patients the care that’s right for them. ONC deserves credit for bringing these standards organizations together to take this concrete, actionable step forward on one of the most vexing problems in health IT.”