It happens more than a healthcare professional would like to think or even admit. A patient comes in to receive care or a rather simple check up, they return home thinking nothing of the normal procedure and, a few months later, their jaw drops to the floor as they sit face-to-face with a bill demanding thousands of dollars for a one-and-done visit. Thankfully, this is a mistake. Unfortunately, however, this story is one that is slowly becoming more and more common and illustrates one of the most frequent issues plaguing both patient and physician alike: patient misidentification. 

The Repercussions of Patient Misidentification

It’s very likely that the patient in that little hypothetical scenario wasn’t actually being charged thousands of dollars for a simple visit. It’s most likely the case that their records were mixed up with another patient who received more expensive, specialized care. Seems like an honest misunderstanding, one that could be solved, albeit inconveniently, by making a few phone calls. So what’s the issue?

What’s especially scary about patient misidentification stories like these isn’t the fact that some may be charged more or have to spend time on the phone pleading their case. These instances are actually the more benign cases of patient misidentification. What’s truly scary are the moments where these mixed up records can lead to the wrong medications and treatments being administered to the wrong patient. If this isn’t spotted early enough, the results can often be drastic for the care facility and fatal for the patient. 

Why are There so Many Patient Misidentification Stories?

It’s not as though care providers are unaware of this issue. In fact, several hospitals are rather vigilant when it comes to keeping their patient records on the up-and-up. This is often done through a combination of medical grade computers and compatible enterprise matching patient index tools capable of eliminating duplicate, inaccurate, and mismatched records that would otherwise cause inaccurate billing or dangerous treatment.

Unfortunately, these efforts can only be observed and enforced individually on a facility-to-facility basis. One facility has no control over how another saves, edits, and shares patient records. Besh Haenke Just, CEO of Just Associates, touches on this as well in AHIMA’s Perspectives in Health Information Management. She comments, “patient data is very disparate by the nature of how it’s collected by different organizations.” And it’s easy to see what she means. A discrepancy as simple as recording an example date as either “7-9-93” or “07-09-1993” can result in a duplicate record across different facilities. 

Even more unfortunately, patients rarely ever seek care from a single facility or single healthcare network. They’re often sent from specialist to specialist, facility to facility, and network to network as their health changes and new care needs make themselves known. 

And it’s within these transfers that patient misidentification stories start to arise. According to a 2014 Patient Identification and Matching Report conducted for the Office of the National Coordinator for HIT, when patient data is exchanged across different care facilities, nearly 50% of patient records are not matched correctly

This lack of uniformity when it comes to patient identification has led many to tout the “Universal Patient Identifier” as the holy grail solution to the problem of mismatched records.

How are Unique Patient Identifiers Used in Healthcare?

The “Unique Patient Identifier” (UPI) would be, like the name suggests, a new piece of identifying data that would be given to every person who seeks care and a system that would know to combine records so long as they share that one piece of identifying data. Think something along the lines of an identifying number a patient carries with them from facility to facility. Whenever a new record is created for that patient, that number is included. From there, a program would know to combine any and all records that share that UPI.

What that piece of identifying information will be, how it will be implemented, and how we would ensure all healthcare providers could incorporate it are all natural questions that arise and are all logistics that have yet to be figured out. This has caused many to become impatient as the issues of patient misidentification and duplicate records only grow in potency as these questions are answered. Understandably, many are considering what can be done in the interim as this magical fix-all is discovered.  

What can be Done About Patient Misidentification Right Now?

Unfortunately, even if a unique patient identifier is discovered and implemented, it’s not yet realistic to expect all healthcare networks and facilities to incorporate it across the board. Like interoperability standards, until an industry-wide policy is implemented that forces healthcare as a whole to mobilize against patient misidentification, it’s up to the individual facility to do their part to ensure that at least their patient populations are protected. 

Educate Patients and Staff

Take the opportunity to express to staff how important these issues are and the dangers behind patient misidentification mishaps. 

It can also help to come up with a standardized means of recording things like names and birthdates. Even seemingly negligible discrepancies like shortening a name from “Michael” to “Mike” can be enough to create a duplicate record of a patient within your own facility or, worse yet, confuse a patient for an entirely different one. 

As far as patients go, take the same educational approach. Inform them on why it’s important to give consistent information whenever they come for a visit or visit a different care facility. Whether you do this through face-to-face interaction, posts on your facility’s website or even outreach like emails or text, make the issue top of mind for your patients and they will make the effort to combat patient misidentification alongside your staff.  

Embrace Clinical Collaboration

Patients, especially those that require specialized care, are constantly being bounced from facility to facility. As the provider currently in charge of their care, it’s your responsibility to do whatever you can to make sure you’re receiving the right information from the other providers who cared for them before. 

Consider clinical collaboration solutions that will allow you to speak with those disparate providers and allow you to work through patient record discrepancies in order to deliver better care. Whether you deem that this will require video calling capabilities in order to speak with multiple providers in a kind of “board” setting or a 4K medical monitor that allows you to more accurately go through patient charting and confirm treatment recommendations, know that collaboration with other providers will be essential in eliminating confusion when caring for a patient.

Until a Better Solution Arrives, We Must be Vigilant

The search for the mythical unique patient identifier continues. Until the perfect solution is found and facilities across the board have adopted it as the industry standard, all your facility can do is remain vigilant in spotting duplicate or mistaken patient records. As long as you and your staff continue to treat patient misidentification as the concerning issue it really is, you will be armed and ready to handle it should it arise. For more information on how you can limit your facility’s contribution to the abundance of patient misidentification stories out there, contact an expert from Cybernet today for hardware that can help.