Can Identity Solve Our Medical Error Crisis?

Last month researchers at Johns Hopkins published research indicating that medical errors in healthcare facilities may constitute the third leading cause of death. This disturbing finding would mean that medical errors are in fact more deadly than stroke, Alzheimer's, respiratory disease and accidents in the United States.

Medical technology and innovation have saved countless lives and dramatically increased life expectancy in the United States. However, our ability to adequately manage the data associated with these systems has sadly not kept pace.

Central to successfully managing the vast quantities of health data produced by our modern equipment is the idea of "patient identity." Indeed, it's hard to imagine how we can even begin to harness the real benefits of medical innovation before laying the groundwork for a system that accurately maps diseases, medical history and test results to the correct patient.

If all of this seems like common sense to you, you may be surprised to learn that patient identity is one of the biggest obstacles confronting the health IT community. The simple fact is that most providers don't have a robust system for matching patients to data, and the ability to share records and data across systems is even worse.

There is one piece of data that by default ends up serving as a unique patient identifier: the Social Security Number. However unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years you likely know that Social Security Numbers have been the target of countless data breaches exposing millions of personal records. Furthermore, it would seem that the unique feature linking your healthcare data together should be something more secure and robust than a simple nine-digit code with a relatively high chance of being entered incorrectly.

Enter smart cards. Instead of a nine-digit code or various pieces of biographical data, a patient's medical ID should instead be linked to a secure health identification card that is locked down with encryption and unable to be duplicated. Such documents provide watertight confirmation of a single unique medical identity, and can be read with the same technology used to process payments on the new EMV chip cards that have rolled out in the U.S. in recent years.

Congress is currently considering a bill that would move us in the right direction. The Medicare Common Access Card Act (H.R.3220) would pilot a program to test a "Medicare Common Access Card" that would verify Medicare beneficiaries using secure smart card technology. Each beneficiary's ID would be tied to his or her card, which would be locked down with encryption and can be remotely deactivated in the event it is lost or stolen, rendering it useless. Such a measure would not only substantially decrease Medicare fraud, but would also reduce medical errors that result from poor health ID practices.

The time for a robust medical identity system that reduces errors and saves lives is now. Smart cards are the clear choice for helping to get us there.

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