Unless you’re off the grid, your email box is full of newsletters and news stories focused on the patient matching conundrum. Trying to solve our country’s patient identification woes has many highly respected healthcare experts talking about this billion-dollar problem—some even going so far as to put their money where their mouth is.

Recently, the phrase “digital identity” has been tossed around whenever talk turns to solutions. Healthcare organizations and vendors alike are weighing in on how technologies being developed under this umbrella will help to solve this costly problem. Smart cards, magnetic stripe cards, bar-coded cards, biometrics (such as iris recognition or palm vein scanning) and smartphones/mobile devices are all authenticator-type technologies being developed to chip away at identification errors.

There is also the long-standing federal moratorium on discussing the development of a unique national patient identifier (UPI). However, there may be a glimmer of hope shining through this complicated political issue. A recent proposed bill by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations recognizes correctly identifying our patients as a critical component of patient safety as well as health information exchange. This is a huge step forward for the Department of Health and Human Services, since Congress has prohibited the use of funds to establish a unique patient identifier since 1999.

There are a couple of relatively realistic scenarios that could come to fruition with some forward momentum on either of these fronts:

  • Scenario #1: All of our dreams come true and the ban on discussing and creating a unique patient identifier is lifted. An extra data value would be extremely helpful in matching our patients. Many would rejoice at the thought of not being asked to provide their social security number (SSN) which ties directly to their financial picture.
  • Scenario #2: A mandate is initiated for all healthcare organizations to implement some form of authentication technology to capture a patient’s digital identity. An extra authentication mechanism, such as iris/palm vein scanning or a mobile app, will certainly provide an additional layer for identifying our patients.

But will these approaches, either alone or in concert, solve the problem? Probably not. While these technologies are a definite step in the right direction, they are not the silver bullet that will resolve the tremendous patient matching challenges that exist today.

For patient demographic data to be trusted, it must be cleansed to identify duplicates, overlays and overlaps. Implementing a UPI or using a digital identity solution does not guarantee an error-free environment.

Further, information systems change with every implementation, replacement, merger and/or acquisition. Cleansing is important to ensure optimal integrity of master patient index data in the wake of migration to a new source and/or downstream system. Historical data is also a major consideration in the total solution, since the UPI and digital identity solutions would likely be managed with a day-forward approach.

Everyone working to solve this costly problem wants the same thing; a total solution to correctly identify our patients. Along with the promise of unique identifiers and digital identification, the data contained within information systems across the healthcare enterprise must be handled in a proactive manner. First and foremost, the data must be consistently cleansed and maintained on a daily basis to ensure the right patient receives the right care at the right time.

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