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How Can Unique Patient Identifiers Help Meet Patient Care Objectives?

3:31 pm by | 5 Comments

Unique Patient IdentifierWith big changes happening in healthcare – and more and more organizations adopting the Triple Aim approach (improving the patient experience, improving the health of populations, and reducing the cost of care) – healthcare professionals are increasingly debating the implementation of a national Unique Patient Identifier (UPI) system. The system would assign individuals a unique number (almost like the healthcare version of a Social Security Number), which would be used identify them across hospitals, physician practices, and other medical facilities nationwide.

Unique Patient Identifiers could help medical organizations meet care objectives in the following ways:

1. By easily identifying individuals for care delivery purposes and administrative functions.

At present, most healthcare facilities identify patients using demographic data such as first and last name, Social Security Number, and date of birth. However, even using a combination of this data, mistakes are often made. Not all patients willingly provide their Social Security Number, for example – and it’s common in many practices for two patients to have the same name and date of birth. This can create confusion and can result in doctors treating one patient while referencing the health record of another. It can lead to duplicate health records being created and patient health data getting spread out over multiple charts. The current system, it’s obvious, is flawed; but Unique Patient Identifier system could fix it.

With a UPI, a provider could easily look up a patient and know without a doubt that the health record they pulled up was correct. They wouldn’t have to worry about quadruple checking that the chart they have is for the right John Smith, and it wouldn’t matter how many times a patient changed their name – the number would always be the same.

2. By identifying patient information to facilitate accurate and comprehensive care.

Getting prompt access to patient health records is necessary for doctors to provide accurate and efficient care. Yet, it isn’t always fast or easy for doctors to obtain health records from other medical facilities, especially those in other states. Unique Patient Identifiers would change that by making it easier for providers to locate patient data, including test results, procedures and exam notes, in order to provide more complete care to patients. It would also ensure that health records were truly accurate portrayals of an individual’s medical history, as they would follow the patient from birth until death.

3. By guaranteeing the privacy, confidentiality and security of patient data.

Privacy and security are major concerns in using UPIs in electronic environments. However, these same concerns exist now over the privacy of data contained within electronic health record systems. With better security protocols, encryption, and protection against unauthorized access, these concerns can easily be dispelled. Patients could even choose not to have other identifying data in their records, making them completely anonymous.

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By Amanda Guerrero Medical Web Experts

Amanda Guerrero is a writer and blogger specializing in EHR, health IT and Meaningful Use. She has a special interest in social media marketing, patient engagement, and using healthcare technologies to increase patient involvement in their health.
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I agree with Tim, though having a UPI is becoming more and more critical, adding a new number into the mix does not solve the problem. How do you determine if the patient should be assigned a new number or not? We could end up with people having more than one UPI, then there is the question of all the illegal immigrants and the documents that they do not have, what would they need to get the new number and care? There should be something like the Medicare number, Medicare uses the same Social (with some add ons), and that has been working well so far, no matter which number is used there will always be people who will be concerned with using it. The logistics of adding a new number is jsut too high, I am leaning towards using the Social as the UPI where available and where not issue something similar to the ITIN that IRS uses. Social should not be something that anyone should need to apply for it should be automatically assigned at birth and every port of entry. This is where transformation needs to take place.

Tim Petz
Tim Petz

As a clinical informaticist, one patient identifier sounds great.  My concern is having a second national identifier,  the social security number is a national identifier, however, since it is tied to money it makes it less than optimal as a health care identifier.  As mentioned in the article, individuals often are uncomfortable sharing the social security number, why would we expect them to feel more comfortable with another identifier?  The barcode analogy is thoughprovoking, shall we generate the number at birth and have it tatooed somewhere?  This would certainly eliminate the problems generated in emergency services when presented with an unresponsive patient and if demographic data can be eliminated or additionally protected to de-identify the records the comfort level with sharing the identifier may be reduced.  Certainly a thought provoking theory.


@kim_nolen @medcitynews great idea. My grand children will be happy when they finally implement it in 2055.


@gnayyar Thank you for the RTs and following @medcitynews. Would love to get you involved in our #mcconverge event. I will reach out.


@chrisseper Would love more info! My email is [email protected]