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National Patient Safety Agency

NHS Number to be used as the unique patient identifier by all NHS organisations in England and Wales

18 September 2008


Today, the National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA) together with NHS Connecting for Health (in England) and Informing Healthcare (in Wales), is issuing a Safer Practice Notice (SPN) to all NHS organisations in England and Wales recommending that they use the NHS Number as the national unique patient identifier.  This follows reports to the NPSA of incidents arising from reliance on local hospital numbering systems which demonstrate a real danger to patients.


Between June 2006 and August 2008, the NPSA received reports of over 1,300 incidents resulting from confusion and errors about patients’ identifying numbers.  Many of these involved duplication in local numbering systems, for example two patients having the same number, or one patient having more than one number.


While no deaths or cases of serious harm to patients have been reported so far, healthcare staff have commented that this is causing significant risk to patient safety.  Using the NHS Number as the national identifier will significantly improve safety by ensuring all patients are identified correctly.


Local hospital numbering systems can still be used alongside the NHS Number where necessary. However, it is a requirement that these recommendations are actioned by 18 September 2009.


Dr Kevin Cleary, Medical Director at the NPSA said: “Safe clinical treatment of any patient relies on the information held, on paper or in an electronic form, belonging to that patient.  Use of the NHS Number as a unique identifier will greatly reduce the risks to patients arising from lost records and similarities in patients’ names and other personal data.  It is crucial that each patient is identified correctly everytime - using the NHS Number is the best way to do this.” 


He continued: “This Safer Practice Notice is part of an ongoing programme of work by the NPSA to reduce errors and patient safety incidents as a result of incorrect identification.”


The Safer Practice Notice is being issued to support NHS Connecting for Health’s NHS Number Programme, which is working towards complete adoption of the NHS Number to help improve patient care within the NHS.


NHS Medical Director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, who is the Senior Responsible Officer for the NHS Number Programme, added: “We should no longer accept the level of misallocated records and the misidentification of patients as inevitable or normal.  We must change the way we work and identify all patients by their NHS Number which will reduce potential errors and harm in the future.”


Every individual registered with the NHS in England and Wales will already have an NHS Number.  This is a unique 10 digit number that is used as the common identifier across different NHS organisations. 


There are several ways for a patient to find out their NHS Number.  In England they can check their NHS medical card or ask their NHS GP Surgery, Primary Care Trust (PCT) or Health Authority.  In Wales, patients can contact their GP, Local Health Board or Business Services Centre.  The information provided will be treated confidentially and the PCT will not give out any personal information over the telephone.




Notes for editors:


  1. Media enquiries to Amelia Lyons in the NPSA Communications Department on 020 7927 9580 amelia.lyons@npsa.nhs.uk

  2.  Media enquiries about NHS Connecting for Health, contact the main press office number on 0207 004 1555, or e-mail nhscfh.pressoffice@nhs.net

  3. Media enquiries about Informing Healthcare, contact: Gill Friend on 01656 678113

  4. The NPSA is issuing the Safer Practice Notice to all NHS organisations in England and Wales on Thursday 18th September in conjunction with NHS Connecting for Health (in England) and Informing Healthcare (in Wales) It is a requirement that this notice is actioned by September 2009. 

  5. To find out more about the NHS Number, patients can visit: http://www.connectingforhealth.nhs.uk/nhsnumber, or for Wales: www.wales.nhs.uk/ihc/nhsnumber

  6. The National Patient Safety Agency encompasses the National Research Ethics Service, National Reporting and Learning Service and the National Clinical Assessment Service. Our vision is to lead and contribute to improved, safe patient care by informing, supporting and influencing healthcare individuals and organisations. Each division works within its sphere of expertise to improve patient outcome.

  7. NHS Connecting for Health supports the NHS in providing better, safer care by delivering computer systems and services which improve the way patient information is stored and accessed. It came into operation on 1 April 2005 and is an agency of the Department of Health, with the primary role of delivering the National Programme for IT.

    Over the next 10 years the National Programme for IT will connect more than 8,500 general practices and their respective community health services in England to around 300 hospitals. It will give patients easier access to their own personal health and care information and healthcare professionals access to patient information safely, securely and easily, whenever and wherever it is needed.