National Patient Identifiers have been sparking a lot of discussion in the blogosphere in the last few months. Last month a Forbes article posited that a “128-Byte Data Field” identifying an individual could save lives and millions of dollars. On the same day, March 25, 2013 a petition was added to the “We the People” website requesting that the Obama Administration “Ask Congress to no longer prohibit the Department of Health and Human Services from establishing standards for a unique patient identifier.” The Petition goes on to remind us that in 1996 the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) required Health and Human Services (HHS) to “adopt national standards for electronic healthcare transactions” and “a standard unique health identifier for each individual, employer, health plan, and health care provider for use in the healthcare system.” In 1998 Congress passed Public Law 105-277 that prohibited HHS spending any funds to “promulgate or adopt any final standard … providing for, or providing for the assignment of, a unique health identifier for an individual … until legislation is enacted specifically approving the standard.” It was not until 2006, that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) started assigning a National Provider Identifier.

EHRs to Save the Day?

It was once thought that moving to Electronic Health Records (EHRs) would solve a lot of health care problems. While it has helped, it has not proven to be the silver bullet. Dr. Farzad Mostashari, head of the HHS/ONC recently stated in congressional testimony, that: “As of February 2013, more than 230,000 providers – nearly 43 percent of the nation’s eligible professionals, and over 75 percent of eligible hospitals – have earned over $12.6 billion in total payments for meeting the requirements of the EHR Incentive Programs.”  Although EHRs are being put in place they are being developed without clear standards and are not interoperable. Dr. Mostashari stated later in his testimony that the ONC was hesitant to dictate standards for interoperability. He wants to see the Healthcare Industry work past their differences.

As the healthcare industry is working out their interoperability problems, the Healthcare Information Management and System Society (HIMSS) – the healthcare industries not-for-profit organization that is “focused on providing global leadership for the optimal use of information technology” – has itself suggested that “8-14% of medical records include erroneous information tied to an incorrect patient identity.” It costs hospitals millions of dollars each year identifying and correcting these errors. Not to mention the potential cost to a patient!

Whether it is the 128-byte identifier suggested by the Forbes article or another idea that comes along, it looks like the issue of a National Patient Identifier has become a critical part of solving our healthcare information and security issues. I believe the discussion is just beginning.

Do you think we need a National Patient ID? Share your thoughts on the pros and cons of this controversial topic in the comments section below.