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IT error duplicates NHS numbers

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Unique numbers that identify NHS patients and their care records have become duplicated and led to mix-ups in the health service’s IT system, nurses have warned.

The problem was highlighted last week in a panel debate involving senior health service IT representatives at the NHS Connecting for Health annual conference for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in London.The numbers, which are used by GPs and hospitals in order to identify patients, have on occasion been duplicated in pilot sites, meaning two different patients share the same number.

This raises the possibility of patients’ records becoming mixed up, as well as concerns about protecting privacy and dignity, delegates heard.

Barbara Stuttle, national clinical nurse lead for NHS Connecting for Health, revealed the concerns in a question from the floor.

Michael Thick, chief clinical officer for NHS Connecting for Health, said: ‘I am deeply concerned – I will take this up with ministers. How it is that the number process manages to issue two numbers, I can’t explain.’

NHS numbers are allocated to babies at birth, or when a patient joins the NHS by approaching a PCT or hospital for the first time for treatment.

Sharon Levy, the RCN’s informatics adviser, said: ‘It is something that is inherent in such a large database.

‘You are putting patients at risk if the records in front of you are referring to the wrong patient and you are making clinical decisions. This issue needs to be addressed but it is inevitable in such a large database,’ he added.

But a spokesperson for NHS Connecting for Health claimed the risk of the duplication happening had now been reduced due to roll-out of the central data ‘Spine’, which holds the care records.

‘The NHS number is generated on the Spine,’ she said. ‘While there remains a very slight risk
that inaccuracies in addresses could lead to duplication of numbers, this is unlikely given that the central Spine has now replaced a number of overlapping NHS databases.

‘The clinical safety benefits of using the unique NHS patient number far outweigh this risk,’ she added.

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