Health-care IT: Unique patient ID numbers would boost quality and efficiency

November 14, 2008

Despite the hefty $11 billion price tag, creating a unique patient identification number for every person in the U.S. would return more than that amount in quality and efficiency gains to the country?s health-care system, according to a study the RAND Corp.

Despite the hefty $11 billion price tag, creating a unique patient identification number for every person in the U.S. would return more than that amount in quality and efficiency gains to the country’s health-care system, according to a study the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank.

Developing a unique patient ID for all U.S. residents would reduce medical errors, simplify the use of electronic medical records, increase overall efficiency, and help protect patient privacy, according to the study.

“Establishing a system of unique patient identification numbers would help the nation to enjoy the full benefits of electronic medical records and improve the quality of medical care,” says Richard Hillestad, the study's lead author. “The alternative is to rely on a system that produces too many errors and puts patients' privacy at risk.”

The 97-page study, “Identity Crisis: An Examination of the Costs and Benefits of a Unique Patient Identifier for the U.S. Healthcare System,” examined the costs of creating a unique patient identification system, compared the error rates of such a system and its alternatives, and analyzed the advances and disadvantages of the technology.

To retrieve patient records, most health systems use a technique called “statistical matching,” which searches for patient records using information like name, birth date, address, gender, medical record numbers, and Social Security Number. However, RAND estimated that statistical matching returns incomplete medical records about eight percent of the time and exposes patients to privacy risks because a large amount of personal information is exposed to computer systems during a search, according to the study.

Many Americans have privacy concerns regarding electronic storage of health information, but RAND says many of those concerns related to a unique patient identification system could be addressed through the creation and enforcement of laws that severely punish those who misuse information retrieved with a health ID number.

"Our research suggests that it's easier to safeguard patient privacy with a records system that makes use of a unique health ID rather than a system that uses statistical matching," Hillestad says.