Australian citizens will be assigned a unique identifying number to help healthcare providers protect their patients from accidentally being given the wrong treatment.
Australians' Medicare records will be accessed to create the "Unique Health Identifiers" (UHI), under an initiative announced by minister for Health, Joe Ludwig.
While Medicare will be responsible for the design, building and testing of the UHI system, Australia's National E-Health Transition Authority (NEHTA) will coordinate the project to collect information needed to develop the identifiers, as well as develop requirements for an identity management system.
The system is meant to resolve the limitations of current identifiers -- name, sex, address and date of birth -- which has led in some instances to the wrong test results being applied to a patient, according to an earlier NEHTA report.
At present, medical service providers such as community GP clinics, pharmacies, private and public hospitals have diverse methods and systems to identify individuals, which can potentially lead to the mis-allocation of tests and treatment. Likewise, medical provider information is often stored on disparate systems.
According to NEHTA, no clinical data will be contained in the records, but they will contain identification and demographic data collected from Medicare. Other potential sources of data may include Australia Post's Geocoded National Address File and Births, Deaths and Marriages Registries for date of death data.
Work on core components of the UHI project commenced in February last year when the Council of Australian Government approved a AU$98 million budget for NEHTA to deliver identifiers for individuals and healthcare providers, which together make up the UHI.
Previously Medicare was not permitted to use its records for secondary purposes such as the creation of the UHI, however, last August Senator Chris Ellison passed legislation allowing the department to do so.
A privacy impact statement is yet to be created for the system, although NEHTA expects the development process to commence in February.
The UHI program will also involve establishing identity management systems to authenticate healthcare providers, workers and patients that access the system. While individuals will be required to use a single factor authentication system, NEHTA plans to establish a two-factor authentication system with the use of smartcards for healthcare providers.
Secondary uses for information collected under the UHI system are yet to be defined, however, NEHTA has proposed that research bodies, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, will be able to access anonymised information.
Last year, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) recommended amending the Privacy Act to include "genetic" information under the definition of "health information", which will govern the use of information collected under the UHI. At present, the Privacy Act does not sufficiently cover genetic information, according to the ALRC.