The Senate can save lives by removing ban on unique patient identifier
© Getty Images

Imagine losing a loved one because he or she is mistaken for another patient, leading to a medical error. Countless real-life examples from health systems across the country provide compelling reasons why we need solutions to address patient misidentification: An infant given expressed breastmilk from the wrong mother who was infected with hepatitis. A patient in cardiac arrest denied lifesaving care because the care team pulled the wrong patient’s record and adhered to a “do not resuscitate” order. Or opiates unknowingly prescribed to patients with a history of addiction.

These situations may have been avoided had patients been accurately identified and matched with their records. The U.S. Senate has an unprecedented opportunity to make that happen when members vote on Senate Fiscal Year 2020 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS) Appropriations bill. In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment that would remove a ban that has stifled efforts to establish a nationwide unique patient identifier. Now, it is up to the U.S. Senate to move this issue forward by rejecting inclusion of outdated rider language in their appropriations bill that prohibits the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from spending any federal dollars to promulgate or adopt a national patient identifier.

For nearly two decades, innovation and industry progress have been halted due to a broad interpretation of this language included in Labor-HHS bills since 1999. More than that, without the ability of clinicians to correctly connect patients with their medical record, lives have been lost and medical errors have needlessly occurred. This problem is so dire that one of the nation’s leading patient safety organizations, the ECRI Institute, named patient identification among the top ten threats to patient safety.

The absence of a consistent approach to accurately identify patients has also resulted in significant costs to hospitals, health systems, physician practices, long-term post-acute care facilities, and other providers, as well as hindered efforts to facilitate health information exchange.

According to a 2016 study of health care executives, misidentification costs the average health care facility $17.4 million per year in denied claims and potential lost revenue. More importantly, there are patient safety implications when data is matched to the wrong patient and when essential data is lacking from a patient’s record due to identity issues. The 2016 National Patient Misidentification Report cites that 86 percent of respondents said they have witnessed or know of a medical error that was the result of patient misidentification.

Today, identifiers are widely used in federal programs, including identification for soldiers within the U.S. Department of Defense’s Military Health System and veterans within the Veterans Administration. Moreover, in 2015, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act, which included a new Medicare non-social security identifier to ensure our seniors’ health care records are kept safe and secure. If such identifiers are good enough to be used for our soldiers, veterans and America’s seniors, why not the rest of us?

Removal of this outdated ban will provide the HHS the ability to evaluate a full range of patient matching solutions and work with the private sector to identify a solution that is cost-effective, scalable, secure and one that protects patient privacy. This is why we urge the U.S. Senate to push forward with a bill that removes this archaic ban and ensures patients are correctly identified.

Wylecia Wiggs Harris, PHD, CAE, is CEO of the American Health Information Management Association. Marc Probst, MBA, is vice president and CIO at Intermountain Healthcare, a member of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) Public Policy Steering Committee and served on the Federal Healthcare Information Technology Policy Committee.