Monday, September 26, 2011

Digital Identity for Medicare Beneficiaries

Last week a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers introduced legislation that would bring digital identities to Medicare patients. This is fantastic news, and a logical extension of the VA and DoD use of their Common Access Card (CAC). This will bring another very large chunk of the population supporting one standard for Digital Identity.  Those against a common identity for all patients will surely have something to say about this, but from what I have read it has broad support today.

A huge administrative burden in healthcare today, especially as we try to link all our data between all the places we have ever been treated, is the identity of the patient. Due to the very old forbiddance to fund any national patient identity, we continue to push all kinds of other demographics into ONE SYSTEM under the hope that system can link all the various identities into one. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails. Failing to find all the places is one form of failure, usually resulting in some data not being used when it could have been. This failure is not very critical today since before HIE or NwHIN there was no sharing, so some linking is better than none.

The failure that results in linking more than your data is the one that causes worry, that is you might be treated differently than you should because data from someone else was reported as yours. If this other data is simply displayed to the clinician, they typically will catch the mistake. But we are trying to get Clinical Decision Support to automate the data analysis; thus there is little chance to detect this failure.

So I am excited that this is being done, and I like their approach

The legislation would require a two-step plan to develop and implement the program.

Under the first phase of the plan, the HHS secretary would set up a smartcard pilot program in specific regions to boost the quality of care and the accuracy of Medicare billing, and reduce the likelihood of identity theft and waste, fraud and abuse.

Under the second phase, officials would consider the viability of expanding the program and implementing the smartcard technology nationwide (KTVZ, 9/14). If successful, the legislation would authorize the distribution of these smartcards to all Medicare beneficiaries.

I know that some will be worried about the implications of a unified identity, but the alternative is clearly not safe or efficient.  As someone who worries about Privacy and Security, the current solution is very scary. It is a huge database of highly identifiable data, some of it valuable to financial fraud others to healthcare fraud. I don’t believe that these databases are not being secured, but we do know that risk is never zero. A huge database like we are forced to build, because we are forbidden to have a common healthcare identity, is a very interesting target to those that could benefit from it.

Having a standard healthcare identity card allows all healthcare treating facilities to focus on one system, one identity. Thus there is not wasted time and effort in designing all kinds of user interfaces and system interfaces to read various identity cards - something we expect humans to do. There would also be less wasted design and implementation time put into interfacing with HIE or NwHIN.
In all cases today this is simply overhead that adds cost to healthcare. There is very little benefit to having thousands of identities independently at thousands of facilities. Let’s identify the perceived benefit and figure out if there is a different way to satisfy that benefit.