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Ten Little Digits: NHS Number guidance for GP Practices

This guest article is by Peter Short, of the Department of Health Informatics Directorate.

Why has the number ten been so important in human culture and history, and where will it take us in the future? Perhaps the question is best answered by the imaginative and entertaining Professor Brian Cox in a new television series! For the NHS until then, ten little digits signal the way to better, safer care and communication – through the NHS Number.

This simple device to provide a unique identifier for every patient in our health system is a simple but fundamental key to unlocking many of the challenges we face in trying to 'join-up' and 'integrate' care. And having been accepted as the standard in England, Wales and the Isle of Man, it is within General Practice that there is the most widespread use and understanding of the benefit.

This published guidance is a reference and training resource for practices to understand how, when and where to use the NHS Number, but also to suggest ways in which to spread this practice more widely. There are many opportunities in day‐to‐day health and social care activities that do not create additional work, but that will increasingly have an impact on safety and efficiency to benefit patients, carers and care staff.

Today the younger generation have no fear of numbers and codes – they use them all the time, with mobile phones, social networking and the internet. Perhaps it is this behaviour that gives us a real glimpse of individual power 'unlocked' by numbers. An NHS Number is like a mobile phone number in so many ways. A unique key, personal and just one digit shorter, and like the mobile number, it increasingly has more and more 'utility'. So as we empower patients, carers and clinicians to use and own the NHS Number what changes might we see?

  • Patients 'expecting' their NHS Number to be used and quoted prominently in all communications
  • Patient 'recording' and using the number from PDAs and mobile phones
  • Reliable access to 'the right record every time' from any setting
  • Linking of separate detailed care records
  • Reduced duplication of information recording
  • Enabled patient record access
  • PBR payment conditional on NHS Number use
  • Linking to social care records.

So the NHS Number Guidance for GP Practices (PDF 448Kb) can provide information, provoke discussion, encourage wider and safer use and ultimately help raise awareness amongst patients about 'their' NHS Number. By focusing on the identity and needs of the individual, the NHS Number contributes to a safer and joined-up patient centred NHS. Why not have a look today?

Peter Short – Clinical Division DHID
22 March 2011