Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to a recent study (recent blog post about this topic). The researchers indicated that most medical errors represent systemic problems, including poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks, the absence or underuse of safety nets, and other protocols, in addition to unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns. Patient misidentification can also be a contributing factor. When patients have the same or similar names, mix-ups in their medical care, procedures, and medication have occurred. Such a mix-up could lead to misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and unsafe outcomes.

Patients’ electronic health records are maintained in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and urgent care facilities, and it can be difficult to exchange protected health care information among providers. Creating a reliable patient identification system could improve medical care and prevent patient care mix-ups. To that end, New Jersey plans to implement a statewide database designed to improve patient care, reduce medical errors, and ensure that healthcare records are accessible to all of an individual’s healthcare providers. This effort strives to connect physicians, hospitals, pharmacists, and other healthcare providers with better access to patient data. The system, which will also link to public health databases, will help avoid a situation where two patients with the same name and identifying characteristics are confused by providers.

The New Jersey Innovation Institute received a $2.9 million grant to develop the patient identification database. The so-called “Master Person Index” initiative endeavors to compile the health history of every person in the state and assign him or her a unique identifier. The comprehensive database will bring together different healthcare information now maintained in different databases across New Jersey. The grant will allow NJII to develop and manage an accurate and reliable index with patient’s records from all of these facilities, along with the ability to transmit them to care providers as needed. The database will include records from urgent care facilities, medical centers, clinics, and pharmacies as well as doctors and hospitals. It will also contain certain records from the state Department of Health.

Several health information organizations began to compile data in 2009 from participating providers in New Jersey, creating a need for standardization and communication between them. A coordinated system that connects providers with existing public health or patient record databases will improve not only patient safety but also public health, in terms of managing population health, reducing the impact of chronic conditions, and keeping people healthier.

The data platform created by NJII has gone online first as a pilot project connecting electronic health records from University Hospital and Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. It will then be expanded for use by participating providers statewide. To address security issues, NJII is developing a legal framework to govern who will have access to the information stored in the master person index.