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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Why will NHS number soon be compulsory?

Q Why do patients need a lifelong NHS number and how do they acquire one?

A As of October 2002, every patient on the NHS Central Register (NHSCR) in England and Wales, including babies born after that date, has been issued with a unique 10-digit number. This is a common identifier for patients and their records across different NHS organisations. Use of the number will become mandatory in NHS records from June this year.

Currently many hospital IT systems use locally generated 'district numbers' to identify patients within their own trusts. Not only does this create problems should a GP refer a patient to another trust, but because similarly named patients often generate very similar district numbers there is a danger of a patient being incorrectly identified.

In the case of hospital blood transfusion or pharmacy departments, this can have serious consequences for any subsequent administration of blood products or drug treatments.

Pathology departments generate an estimated 70 per cent of all the data contained in patient records and it is vital patients are accurately identified so their lab results can be correctly assigned.

By using the unique NHS number, not only can patient information be gathered across different organisations and linked together by this common currency, but risks of patient misidentification in hospitals will be greatly reduced once their IT systems start to incorporate the new data, as is now planned.

To obtain an NHS number a patient needs to officially enter the NHS by permanently joining the practice list of a GP surgery or approaching a PCO or health authority, which will then submit details to the NHSCR.

Dr Barry Hill, chief biomedical scientist, Wigan Royal Infirmary

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