In the first installment of this series of posts by Umanick about patient security in the world of health care, we singled out correct patient identification as one of the health care sector’s major challenges for the 21st century. In this second entry, we elaborate on this issue and examine three of the fundamental reasons that support this statement. Because correctly identifying patients is the first step to protecting patients’ safety, reducing health care spending and eradicating medical fraud.

Identificación segura de pacientes

Minimize medical errors through correct patient identification.

Improving patient safety

Erroneous patient identification is the number one cause of medical errors in health care. According to a study of the US Veterans Administration (VA) health care system, incorrect identification was the major cause of 72% of the adverse events that occurred to members of this groupin 2010.

The same study cites failing to correctly identify patients as the fundamental cause of erroneous diagnoses of patients’ health, administering the wrong medication, performing unsolicited transfusions, procedures and treatments, or carrying out unnecessary invasive and non-invasive tests, among other mistakes.

Incorrect patient identification is therefore the cause that contributes to the emergence of a whole host of adverse events that can cause serious harm to patients’ health and, in some extreme cases, even death. The figures are quite clear and equally alarming, as the following examples show.

  • A study published in 1998 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), places the death toll in the USA as a result of medical error at 98 000, 60% of which were the result of errors in patient identification.
  • More recent reports state that harm to patients as the result of medical errors has become the third largest cause of death in the US health care system.
  • One in seven patients on the Medicare social security health insurance program, which is run by the US government and provides health care to over 65s, has suffered from some kind of medical error.
  • In total, medication errors affect more than 1.5 million people in the US each year.
  • Two thirds of the errors in transfusions are related to the incorrect bedside identification of patientswhile they are on the ward.

These figures are shocking and are a major concern for governments, and public and private health care organizations alike. One example of such an organization is the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, which, since 2003, has cited correct patient identification as one of its targets for improving patient safety.

To reduce health care spending

The second argument in support of improving patient identification methods is of a financial nature, as the cost of maintaining an inefficient patient identification system year after year is overwhelming.

Currently, hospitals allocate a large part of their budget, time and manpower to correcting errors and mitigating the effects of problems for the patient. Another considerable sum of money is set aside to ensure that the information in electronic medical records is accurate and up to date. Once again, published figures support this statement.

  • Hospitals spend an estimated 3.5 billion dollars each year on treating illnesses related to incorrectly administered medication, which represents a totally unnecessary cost for the health care system.
  • According to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, 116 instances of wrong-site surgery, including surgery performed on the wrong patient, were committed during operations in 2008 (the year of the most recent available data). This makes wrong-site surgery the most prevalent such error for 2008.

To prevent medical fraud

Although the occurrence of adverse events is the most serious issue because it directly threatens patient safety, it is by no means the only problem caused by the ineffectiveness of the current patient identification methods. There is also a serious problem in protecting patients’ personal data and preventing the theft of their medical identities.

Identificación biométrica de pacientes

Biometric patient identification makes things safer for patients.

By definition, medical identity theft occurs when an individual uses the personal information of another to commit an act of fraud related to the provision of health care services or products. A fraudster can use the stolen identity to receive treatment, including surgery, or to defraud medical insurance companies by making false claims.

One of the most famous cases of fraud is that of a man from Ohio (USA) who was accused of identity theft. He is believed to have used another individual’s identity to obtain more than 300 000 dollars in medical treatments.

The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud claims that year after year medical insurance fraud remains one of the primary causes of arrest and conviction for acts of fraud committed against medical insurance companies. The Ponemon Institute (USA), which carries out studies into privacy, data protection and information security, has also published data that shows the severity of this issue.

  • In 2010, 1.4 million people were victims of identity theft. More than half of the people interviewed for the study admitted to having experienced at least one incident of medical identity theft, and 45% reported more than five violations of data in the last two years.
  • The same institute estimates that medical identity fraud, as a means of accessing the services of the US health care system, costs tax payers between 70 and 255 billion dollars each year. These figures represent between 3 and 10% of the government’s total annual health care bill.
  • Roughly half of the victims of medical identity theft have lost their insurance policies, and only 10% of cases have been fully resolved.

In all of these cases, repairing the damage caused to the patient’s reputation and his or her bank balance is difficult, but identity fraud may yet have more drastic consequences. If a fraudster receives treatment in someone else’s name, these health problems appear in the victim’s medical records. This may affect the victim’s chances of receiving medical treatment and medical insurance benefits, and may even influence doctors’ decisions when treating this patient. What’s more, an unpaid health bill may end up affecting the patient’s credit rating.

How do we change this situation?

Without doubt, the health care system is in need of a method that unequivocally, safely and securely identifies each and every patient. The goal is clear: to improve patient safety throughout the entire healthcare system, while simultaneously protecting patients’ medical identity, preventing fraud and reducing the overall costs of health care.

One thing is for sure: we cannot keep on relying on traditional identification credentials and methods. Despite many of these methods such as date of birth, address, name and surname or car license plate being used with total confidence in many other sectors, in the case of health care,using this information to identify patients is, unfortunately, highly unreliable.

To remedy this problem, hospitals and health centers will have to stop trying to identify people using something they know (e.g., name and surname) or something they carry with them (e.g., identification card), and start to identify people using what they are. In other words, using some physical trait or behavior that unequivocally, safely and securely identifies someone as a unique individual. And to do so, biometric technology offers the best solution.

If you would like to know how biometrics can resolve the problems caused by incorrect patient identification, keep an eye out for the next post on the Umanick blog, which will be the last in thisthree-article series of entries on this issue.

And, if you want to find out about Umanick’s value proposition for health care, click to download a FREE version of “BIOMETRICS IN HEALTH CARE”.