An idea that is not rocket science - Patient identity numbers

THE proposal to give every patient using health and social care services a unique identifying number for their lifetime is a sensible step towards improving patient safety and avoiding hospital cock-ups that can put lives at risk.

Along with free GP care for people aged over 70, the timing of this announcement is another tell-tale sign an early general election could be on the cards. A question that comes to mind is why was this idea not put into effect before now? It’s glaringly obvious that measures to reduce incorrect medication cases or vaccinations, or sending the wrong patient for surgery, are long overdue. Yet, it has to be said this seems a worthwhile scheme which, provided it does what it says on the tin, ought to be welcomed.

It was first proposed in 2009 as a means of reducing duplication and administration work, and facilitating electronic health records. Besides helping in the prescription of medicine, it was also aimed at bringing patients in Ireland into line with those in the rest of Europe. It has taken six years to deliver what some will see as another layer of bureaucracy in the form of a specific number for patients as distinct from the personal public service (PPS) number, which helps people access social welfare benefits, public services, and information.

Despite the propensity for bungling at every level of the ailing health service, the idea of issuing patients with lifetime ID numbers is not rocket science. But it is crucial that the implementation of this scheme be closely monitored so as to ensure the laudable objective of delivering care to the right patient, in the right place, at the right time, is not consigned to the realm of a convenient political soundbite, but actually achieved in every single hospital.

According to the health watchdog authority, Hiqa, which unveiled the identification plan under what it called “individual health identifiers” (IHI), the proposal will be piloted in three areas this year, including epilepsy electronic patient records, one multi-GP general practice and the electronic medical records of hospice patients. In order to assuage the natural concerns of patients, the authority is emphatic that no medical or clinical information will be stored in the new ID system.

The aim is to go live nationally when legislation is in place and a privacy impact assessment is published. As Health Minister Leo Varadkar put it, the system will enable patients and staff moving through the health service to be followed in a way they cannot be tracked at present. That said, however, the fact t the HSE will be responsible for storing all personal data required for the new scheme to work efficiently, at a cost yet to be revealed, does not inspire confidence.

Meanwhile, giving free GP care to between 35,000 and 40,000 people over 70 who do not currently hold a medical or GP visit card, including wealthy pensioners, means another piece of the election jigsaw is in place, along with free GP access for all under-sixes. These piecemeal measures fall far short of the Government’s much-vaunted plans for universal healthcare which a highly sceptical public has yet to see.

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