House lifts ban on unique patient identifiers

The House of Representatives recently voted to lift a 20-year ban on the development of unique patient identifiers. Healthcare providers and IT groups have been urging the House to overturn the ban in order to offer better patient care, but concerns over privacy led to a delayed reaction from the government employees.

Background on the Ban

The original ban prevented the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from using funds to develop or promote a unique patient identifier system. A unique health identifier is a system in which a person is assigned a value that involves personal characteristics that can link a person to their healthcare information. The value is not shared with anyone outside of the healthcare field.

Currently, the United States uses demographic data for patient identification such as dates of birth, names, and ethnicity. House members were afraid to stray from this system as they believed having unique patient identifiers would allow for more vulnerability and lead to the exposure of sensitive information. This ban went into effect in 1999 and has since been upheld by including a section on the annual appropriation bill.

This section usually has some type of wording that prevents using unique health identifier until legislation is created that allows for this standard.

Turning Over a New Leaf in Patient Care

People have been calling for the removal of the ban for several years, with the reasoning that having unique patient identifiers allows for better patient care. With the current system, the matching rate for patients to be linked to their records varies depending on the Electronic Health Records (EHR) and the organization itself.

The PEW Research Center cited that some companies claim they have a match rate of 98 percent accuracy while others have a rate as low as 50 percent. This number fluctuates not only when matching records within a hospital that the patient has been to, but when health records from multiple care providers are coming to a central location.

These inaccuracies can result in a variety of issues for both the patient and healthcare provider such as:

  • Missed diagnoses
  • Unnecessary tests
  • Missing information on the patient
  • Inappropriate treatment

Support Grows While Others Remain Opposed

Representative Bill Foster is one of the House members who introduced the amendment to lift the ban. He spoke in favor of the removal, stating that the existing policy has led to thousands of American’s death because of incorrect or incomplete EHR. He said it stemmed from the inability to correctly merge health records from different systems.

Another source said that patient identifiers would be easier to change than a social security number if the health records were to be breached. CEO of security vendor, Imprivata, said the new system would achieve interoperability and put an end to the patient’s identity crisis. While several others including the Duke Center for Health Informatics and the CEO of the American Health Information Management Association are in favor of the ban’s overturning, others remain unconvinced of the benefits.

President of the advocacy group, “Patient Privacy Rights” stated that having unique identifiers would allow for all U.S. Health data to be available to all sorts of entities of which the patient may not even be aware. She stated that the best way to ensure patient matching is for the healthcare provider to obtain informed consent from the patient instead of data flowing from doctor to insurer.

The Future of Patient Privacy

While the vote on lifting the ban resulted in a favorable 246 to 178 vote, the appropriations bill must first be passed and the Senate would have to give approval. After those steps, the US President must sign the bill to make it a law. Ensuring patient privacy is a priority for any hospital or government agency, that’s why we developed the hardware encrypted SecureDrive product line.

Our military-grade encrypted devices store patient information and protect it by using secure onboard pin entry and wireless authentication. The devices are HIPAA compliant and are FIPS 140-2 Level 3 Validated to ensure total security. Learn more about these and other data storage solutions by calling 1-800-875-3230.