System needed to trace patients


A new system for identifying individual patients across all levels of the health and social care system, both public and private, should be introduced as soon as possible, according to a new report.

The report from the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) published today states that being able to identify an individual through a unique patient identification number is essential for patient safety.

"The absence of a unique health identifier (UHI) for individuals is the single most important deficiency in the health information infrastructure in Ireland," the report says .

It says however that PPS numbers should not be used to do the job. An analysis by it found that it would be unsafe and far from saving money could, in the longer term, lead to increased costs.

While it found the current PPS numbers system could be enhanced so as to be used safely it concluded a brand new UHI would be the best option.

"Based on the available evidence, and in the interests of patient safety and efficient use of resources, the new UHI would be cost effective, represent international best practice and would be more secure than using the enhanced PPS number as the UHIfor Ireland," the report added.

The report goes on to state that international evidence shows the capital cost of introducing a UHI is recovered in the first few years of operation but only if the UHI is used virtually universally throughout the healthcare system. And while it warns its introduction cannot commence until the full infrastructure to support its safe use is in place, it says "the new identifier should be introduced as soon as possible".

Professor Jane Grimson, director of health information with Hiqa said that in order to provide high quality and reliable health care, and ensure maximum patient safety, it is essential that patients can be identified uniquely and clearly and this is not currently the case.

"At the moment in Ireland there is no reliable method of tracking a patient through the healthcare system. Currently, healthcare services rely on matching names, addresses and date of birth, none of which are reliable or recorded in a standard format. This poses a substantial risk to the safe delivery of services. Our primary concern is patient safety, and this is one area where immediate action is needed," she said.

She added that it was clear from recent reports that tragedies like those in Monageer could have been averted - if only the health and social care services had a clearer sense of the contacts between the family and State services and if there had been a better, safer use of information about such patients. "This is just one example of how a UHI can improve safety," she said.

Hiqa's new report, which has been submitted to health minister Mary Harney, recommends the establishment of a group representative of the Departments of Health, Social and Family Affairs and Finance; the Data Protection Commissioner and patients to determine the exact format of the new UHI.

A Hiqa spokesman said Ms Harney, since receiving the report, has established such a group to finalise policy in relation to the UHI.

In a statement today, Ms Harney said report would make an "important contribution to work currently underway on setting policy for an individual health identifier for the health services".

"This work is being done in the context of the preparation of the Health Information Bill which will provide the legislative basis for the individual health identifier," the statement said.

The inter-agency working group will be chaired by the Department and will include representatives of the Departments of Finance, Social and Family Affairs, Education and Science, the HSE and HIQA.