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.
Your comments: (Terms and conditions apply)
"I have had problems since my NHS numbers in my family have all changed since moving to a new GP surgery, and all birth records are also missing" – Tracey Owens, Shropshire
"I have to agree with comment number two, below – I remember all the work we put in when new numbers came out, it is the hospital we do not understand the importance. Unfortunately the majority of the patients register with us
are non-English and do not have numbers though and it is then impossible to do a Choose and Book appointment as they do not have a number. Also, when the new numbers came out we were informed it would be the responsibility of midwives to allocate numbers to new babies – this never seems to happen. There would need to be a national campaign informing the whole country of the importance of knowing their number as no one ever knows it" – Clare Dean, City View
"That is a briliant idea, but what happens when the NHS number is misquoted – is there a plan B?" – Name and address withheld
"We have been using NHS numbers to identify patients for years. I remember a great pile of sticky labels for patient files being sent to us with new NHS numbers on them at least 10 years ago! So what's new? It is NHS hospitals that have NOT been using them" – Name and address withheld
"Yes, it's a great idea" – Name and address withheld