Mayo, IU Medicine, Pew health experts tackle patient matching and contact tracing issues

While patient identification and matching are not new issues for healthcare, the COVID-19 pandemic has "exposed deep-seated and long-standing deficiencies in the underlying technology infrastructure" for patient data sharing among providers, according to a commentary article published in npj Digital Medicine.

In the article, co-authors John Halamka, MD, president of Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic Platform; Ben Moscovitch, health IT project director of the Pew Charitable Trusts; and Shaun Grannis, MD, Regenstrief chair in medical informatics at Indianapolis-based Indiana University School of Medicine, explain why better patient matching will improve the fight against COVID-19.

To be effective for research and contact tracing efforts, patient electronic health data must match with the correct individual. However, these rates vary widely across the U.S., with healthcare facilities failing to match records for the same patient as often as 50 percent of the time, according to the report. Patients' records are matched based on demographic data, such as names, addresses, or dates of births.

In response to COVID-19, many of the tech systems such as labs used to transmit data to public health registries do not have key identifying information about patients, such as address or phone number. 

Here are three steps to improve patient matching, according to the co-authors: 

1. Adopt the U.S. Postal Service's standard address format. Researchers have found that implementing a standard address format, such as the USPS specifications, would accurately link an extra 3 percent of records, which would translate into "tens of thousands of additional correct matches a day," according to the report. 

USPS already offers its web-based standardization tools free to some industries, so it should allow health tech developers to use the tool within their systems during the pandemic.

2. Add more data to tech systems. Tech systems that share data among healthcare providers, pharmacies, labs and registries should incorporate data besides demographic information to distinguish among people with similar names and phone numbers.

ONC recently issued regulations to encourage EHR developers to use patients' previous addresses, email addresses and other information for matching. The agency should work with tech developers, labs and registries to implement similar requirements.

3. Tap into biometrics, unique identifiers and multifactor authentication. While the use of such tech cannot be deployed soon enough to help reduce the immediate effects of the pandemic, there are opportunities to use it to enhance patient identification and matching for routine care in the future.

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