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Would Universal Patient IDs Decrease Medical Errors?

If you have ever attempted to transfer your medical records from one health care provider to another you know that it often requires a significant amount of time and paperwork. As health systems in the U.S. attempt to move into the 21st century by shifting to electronic medical records, questions are being raised about the idea of offering all individuals universal patient identifiers (UPIs).

UPIs offer a uniform method of linking individuals to their medical data. Instead of having a slew of different patient ID numbers for clinics, insurance plans, pharmacies and others involved in the health care system, each patient would have a single unique UPI. The hope is the UPIs would increase efficiencies, improve patient safety and avoid hospital errors.

Advocates of UPIs argue they would enable doctors to more seamlessly transfer a patient's data between providers. This would hopefully save time, costs and improve patient safety and experience.

Those concerned about privacy are leery of the idea of UPIs. The worry that UPIs would make it more likely private medical records would be collected and used for profit without patient consent. As a result, patients may lose trust in the healthcare system and hide vital information from their doctors. Additionally, since all medical records are connected to a single UPI, if that number is somehow compromised patients may risk having their entire medical history in the wrong hands.

As the debate around UPIs continues, hopefully further research on the subject will clarify whether such a system would truly benefit patient safety.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, Should Every Patient Have a Unique ID Number for All Medical Records?, Michael F. Collins and Deborah C. Peel, 23 January 2012

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