Health aims for sole identifier

People often have several identifiers and it's not always easy to figure out that they may apply to the same individual

A single health “identifier” for each person is the aim of a Ministry of Health project to clean up both patient and doctors’ records — and make them more accessible when needed.

The ministry has dubbed its objective “a single source of truth”.

According to Information Deputy Director General Brendan Kelly, although people are supposed to have just one “identifier” — their National Health Index (NHI) number — they, in fact, often have several such numbers or identifiers, which may be used as they make their way through the health system. Hence the need for these to be rationalised as it’s not always easy to figure out that they may apply to the same individual.

A single, reliable health number for each patient would “provide access for health professionals to a secure, accurate patient identifier, which travels with that person” through all their interactions with doctors, nurses, dentists and other health professionals, says Kelly.

This would give a rounded picture of patients’ treatment and make sure their “stream of care” is properly managed. It should also ensure that mishaps, such as giving people medicine they are allergic to, don’t occur, and that other vital facts picked up by diagnosis are on the record.

Even under the main NHI system, patients have acquired as many as three different numbers.

A new, consistent Health Practitioner Index (HPI) is also being built at the same time. This will assign a single number to each health professional. The situation here is even more chaotic, with some doctors, for example, having different ID numbers for their public and private practices, as well as the various disciplines in which they work. For example, some dentists are also surgeons. They can have yet more ID numbers assigned to them by the various professional bodies to which they belong.

To date, says Kelly, the record is 35 different ID numbers for the same person.

But the rationalisation project goes even further than this: improved GIS systems will also allow treatment places — hospitals, clinics, GPs’ surgeries, and so forth — to be consistently identified and geo-coded. Health sector organisations will be similarly identified.

The identity project is a key element in a series of updates and replacements of ageing information systems, which is known collectively as the National Systems Development Project (NSDP). This larger project will allow more information to be held and moved electronically, rather than on paper, and interfaced with the computerised management systems that almost all health professionals now use.

The “identifiers” are intended as database keys not as an authentication measure, says Kelly. But their adoption will help drive increased accessibility of information online, and the opening up of networks to a wide range of health professionals.

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