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Patients deal with a host of risks whenever they enter a hospital for treatment. Hospitals have a duty by law to ensure that their facilities and practices provide a safe environment for patients. And while most safety errors are made by hospitals during or after treatment, there is one dangerous situation that routinely occurs in hospitals often before a patient is even seen by a doctor—that of patient misidentification.

I’ve recently written about medical errors in hospitals and how ultimately patients pay the cost, but patient misidentification is a different type of mistake that can potentially lead to even more harm to an individual—occurring when a hospital makes an error in taking down a patient’s medical or insurance information or wrongly identifies or mistakes a patient for another throughout the course of care. One report suggests that around 10 percent of misidentification issues result in temporary or permanent harm to the patient, including death. Another survey of medical providers indicates that 86 percent have witnessed patient misidentification errors being made, or were at least aware of such errors occurring in their facilities.

The potential list of harmful actions that could result for patients who fall victim to misidentification are endless: improper billing, improper treatment, errors in medication, and denied insurance claims are just to name a few. Hospitals also lose millions of dollars a year in insurance reimbursements due to errors in patient identification. These facilities also experience inevitable administrative slowdowns once these errors are identified which can spill over and cause inefficient and lower quality care for patients. What’s unfortunate is that most of these errors occur during patient registration, meaning many of the safety issues that are associated with misidentification could be solved and prevented at the door as patients are entering the hospital.

Obviously, attention to detail and better accountability could eliminate the issue, but there are other ways to solve the problem of patient misidentification. One company, Imprivata, has developed an electronic system that uses biometric identification measures—scanning of the iris or palm-vein technology to accurately identify the patient—that can virtually eliminate such errors. Biometric identification measures include Patients under these methods are no longer identified simply by their demographic or numerical information they input at registration. Biometric identification

By using parts of the patient’s medical anatomy to ensure that proper identification has been made, Imprivata argues that such technology could easily integrate with existing electronic medical records system to eliminate identification errors as well as reduce the frequency of medical identity theft. The only major hurdle to implementing biometric identification technology throughout the United States is the usual problems of funding and resource allocation. Hospitals and similar facilities may not have the resources or capabilities to use Imprivata’s technology or some hospitals’ leadership may be against the idea of such a massive change in patient registration procedures. Still, over 350 hospitals throughout the country have already begun to use such a system with positive results.

Serious issues can result from identification errors; ones that no patient should be burdened with in addition to typical anxieties and risks associated with a hospital stay. In the future, biometric identification technology could eliminate such threats and lead to overall improved patient safety.

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