All practices in England and Wales will be required to use the NHS number as the national unique patient identifier by this time next year, following a new Safer Practice Notice (SPN) issued today (18 September 2008).
The National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA), together with NHS Connecting for Health (in England) and Informing Healthcare (in Wales) is issuing the SPN to all NHS organisations in England and Wales.
This follows reports to the NPSA of incidents arising from reliance on local hospital numbering systems that demonstrate a real danger to patients.
Between June 2006 and August 2008, the NPSA received reports of more than 1,300 incidents resulting from confusion and errors about patients' identifying numbers. Many of these involved duplication in local numbering systems – for example, two patients having the same number, or one patient having more than one number.
While no deaths or cases of serious harm to patients have been reported so far, healthcare staff have commented that this is causing significant risk to patient safety. The NPSA says that using the NHS number as the national identifier will significantly improve safety by ensuring all patients are identified correctly.
Local hospital numbering systems can still be used alongside the NHS number where necessary. However, it is a requirement that these recommendations are actioned by 18 September 2009.
Dr Kevin Cleary, Medical Director at the NPSA, said: "Safe clinical treatment of any patient relies on the information held, on paper or in an electronic form, belonging to that patient.
"Use of the NHS number as a unique identifier will greatly reduce the risks to patients arising from lost records and similarities in patients' names and other personal data. It is crucial that each patient is identified correctly every time - using the NHS number is the best way to do this."
He continued: "This SPN is part of an ongoing programme of work by the NPSA to reduce errors and patient safety incidents as a result of incorrect identification."
NHS Medical Director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, the Senior Responsible Officer for the NHS Number Programme, added: "We should no longer accept the level of misallocated records and the misidentification of patients as inevitable or normal. We must change the way we work and identify all patients by their NHS number, which will reduce potential errors and harm in the future."
Every individual registered with the NHS in England and Wales will already have an NHS number – a unique 10-digit number used as the common identifier across different NHS organisations.
Is this a good idea? Will complying with this be straightforward? Your comments: (Terms and conditions apply)
"As people already have a NHS number there should be no problem in setting up the system. What I would like to see is the programme made more widescale. I attend a meeting for unpaid carers in York with PCT and council members. We are working on a card to identify carers in case of emergencys. Could we use the same NHS number for identifying the carer? It would be good to think we could." - Katie Smith, York
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