ONC releases specification to standardize patient addresses

Uniform format for use in health IT records expected to improve matching of patient records and data sharing, but gaps remain.

Matching electronic patient records across the care continuum just became a little easier, now that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) has released its preferred structure for patient addresses.

The Technical Specification Final Version 1.0, published on January 7, is a product of ONC’s Project US@ (“Project USA”), a collaborative industry-wide effort. It included more than 150 participants, including standards development organizations, health IT developers, payers, provider organizations, state and federal agencies, and research, advocacy and public health organizations.

The new format is a unified, cross-standards healthcare specification that can be used for representing patient addresses to improve patient matching in the industry. ONC encourages health IT developers, providers and other stakeholders to adopt and use the new format.

For instance, the new technical specification addresses, among other things, the recommended use of particular address elements, capitalization, punctuation, approved abbreviations and the use of special characters.

A patient’s address is one of the most important components of patient record matching and one of the most impactful, the agencies and stakeholder organizations say. People’s addresses change frequently; they are also written in a wide variety of ways and often entered into a patient’s record incorrectly.

“A standardized patient address might seem like a small thing, but that’s precisely why this work was important. Improving the accuracy and consistency of addresses will have a big impact if implemented at scale,” said Steve Posnack, deputy national coordinator for health IT in a statement.

ONC had received almost 130 comments on the draft technical specification, issued in 2021.

ONC also released a companion guide, developed in collaboration with the American Health Information Management Association, that provides best practices for the timely and accurate capture and management of addresses when using the new specification.

In a related blog post also released January 7, ONC noted that its work on the patient address specification was not complete. In 2022, the agency will continue to focus on unfinished business, including geolocation data and tribal communities.

Accurate patient matching is a critical component of interoperability and patient safety. Improving matching is expected to reduce or avoid\ duplicate, incomplete or inaccurate records, unnecessary care and testing, mismatched records, and higher costs.

However, linking a patient to all of his or her medical records remains a major challenge. There currently is no standardized way to create a complete, longitudinal health record for patients. Current methods are only partially effective, and often require the use of manual matching, which is expensive and time consuming, industry analysts note.

The release of a standardized format for patient addresses is welcome news in the industry. 

“Interoperability, the seamless transfer of patient data between authorize[d] stakeholders, is a critical component of an improved and more efficient healthcare delivery system. However, for information to be shared effectively and to reduce the possibility of patient harm, the medical information being transmitted must be associated with the correct patient. The announcement today by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology is an important step forward in assuring patients, providers and others that medical records are being accurately matched,” said Charles Stellar, president and CEO of  WEDI, a leading health IT advisory organization.

However, additional work on standardization is needed to improve data sharing and reduce patient harm, he added.

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