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November-December 2020

Washington Scene: Patient Identification: Calling on Congress to Make A Difference
By Lauren Riplinger, JD
For The Record
Vol. 32 No. 6 P. 5

Since 1999, Congress has banned federal funds from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be used to create or even research a unique patient identifier. This ban stems from privacy concerns from former members of Congress—concerns that are no longer as relevant today as health care has moved away from a paper-based world and become increasingly digitalized.

Matching patients properly to their health information is important because a failure to do so can raise safety issues, including the potential for medical errors, delayed or lost diagnoses, duplicative testing, and wrong patient orders.

The recently formed Patient ID Now coalition, of which AHIMA is a cofounding member, is pleased that the House of Representatives voted to remove the longstanding ban that stifles innovation around patient identification from its fiscal year 2021 Labor-HHS appropriations bill.

This victory was advocated for by Patient ID Now, backed by pivotal leadership from Reps Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Mike Kelly (R-Pa.). Because of their efforts, more members of Congress are hearing about the harm created by this ban—including how it hinders the public health response to COVID-19.

Patient Matching and the Pandemic
As the United States continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, accurate patient information is vital for our country to launch a nationwide response. As things stand, patient misidentification is negatively impacting one of the best tools we have for slowing the spread of the virus: testing.

Patient ID Now has seen reports of temporary testing sites collecting patient samples and then sending them to off-site public health agencies for testing. However, because of inconsistent and minimal amounts of demographic information included with the sample, sometimes there are difficulties matching the results to the correct patient.

This has the potential to lead to a buildup of COVID-19 test results that aren’t being returned to patients in a timely manner. Perhaps most alarmingly, it also can lead to results being sent to the wrong patient, which of course increases the safety risks for anyone who comes in contact with misidentified patients. And with some areas of the country using temporary testing sites such as parking lots, these challenges can become even more pronounced.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the novel coronavirus, including how it will affect the long-term health of patients. But here’s what we do know: Accurately matching patients to their medical history will be key for tracking the impact of COVID-19 in the years to come.

Health information will also play a key role in the eventual administration of a COVID-19 vaccine. Accurate information will be vital for any large-scale immunization programs, so that who has had the disease, who has already been vaccinated, and patient outcomes can all be tracked. Once there is a vaccine, accurately identifying patients will be critical to ending the pandemic and protecting communities.

The Path Forward
So what’s next? Patient ID Now is working to educate members of the Senate about the importance of properly identifying patients and why it’s vital for the ban to be removed. The coalition is hosting briefings, presenting at Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology forums on the topic, meeting with members of Congress and the Trump administration, and more.

A national patient identification strategy would reduce the number of patients who are assigned inaccurate or duplicate medical records, which would lead to improved care for all patients. Patient ID Now calls upon US Senate leaders to support the removal of section 510 of the Labor-HHS bill.

More information about patient matching and the Patient ID Now Coalition is available at PatientIDNow.org.

— Lauren Riplinger, JD, is vice president of policy & government affairs at AHIMA.