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Advocates look to Congress for new patient matching system


A small crack is developing in the long-standing federal prohibition against the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ (HHS) involvement in efforts to improve matching patients with their medical records

John FrankA small crack is developing in the long-standing federal prohibition against the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ (HHS) involvement in efforts to improve matching patients with their medical records, eliminating duplicate copies among various physicians.

Congress has banned HHS since 1999 from spending money on developing a new patient matching system due to privacy concerns. But proponents say including the agency in the patient matching discussion could ultimately benefit patient safety and aid in the quest to achieve universal electronic health record (EHR) interoperability.

Matching patients with their own health records is a major challenge for healthcare today, according to a 2016 survey of healthcare IT professionals by the American Health Information Management Association. 

In that survey, 47% of respondents said their organizations do not have a quality assurance step in the patient registration process to ensure the patient is being matched with his or her own health records. Matching a patient with the records of someone else with the same name can cause safety problems.

Tejal K. Gandhi, MD, MPH, president of the National Patient Safety Foundation says “it’s clearly an issue, there is an error rate” and such errors of matching patients with the wrong records pose safety concerns.

But last fall, the House Appropriations Committee included language in a report accompanying a fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill that would allow HHS to offer “technical assistance” to private industry efforts to develop a new patient matching system. The language stops short of allocating federal funding for such efforts. 

A cross-section of 23 healthcare IT, insurance and other related groups applauded the language in an October 2016 letter to the House committee.


“We are adamant that the quality, safety and cost effectiveness of healthcare across the nation will improve if a national strategy to accurately identify patients and match those patients to their health information is achieved,” the letter states.

The College of Health Information Management Executives (CHIME), a signatory to the letter, has been active on the patient-matching front.  Indeed, the CHIME Healthcare Innovation Trust is sponsoring the CHIME National Patient ID Challenge with a $1 million prize to accelerate creation and adoption of a new matching approach that will ensure complete accuracy in identifying patients.

The challenge has drawn 371 registrants and 113 ideas in its initial phase, says Matthew Weinstock, a CHIME spokesman. Involving HHS in the process also would allay healthcare concerns that any privately-developed matching system might not be accepted by Medicare. 

Barry R. Hieb, MD, chief scientist at GPII, which focuses on patient matching and is preparing a proposal for the CHIME competition, says the language would counter industry concerns that developing better patient matching methods might be illegal.

Today, an approach known as probabilistic matching is often used to match patients and their records. It employs algorithms that consider data such as name, date of birth and gender.  


John Frank is a freelancer healthcare journalist.  Do you think patient matching is necessary?
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