A male patient's hand rests on a nurse call button in a hospital bed

Positive patient identification


This national learning report (NLR) draws on findings from investigation reports completed by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) that considered the risks associated with patient identification. ‘Positive patient identification’ is correctly identifying a patient to ensure that the right person receives their intended care. To support patient identification in England, the patient’s NHS number should be used alongside other identifiers, such as their name, date of birth and address.

Patient misidentification is where a patient is identified as someone else. This may mean that a patient does not receive the care meant for them, or that they receive the care meant for someone else. Patient misidentification was highlighted as a risk to patient safety by the National Patient Safety Agency in the early 2000s. Despite the time that has passed, patient misidentification remains a persistent risk to patient safety that can result in significant harm.

Aim and approach

The aim of this NLR was to combine and analyse HSIB’s previous investigations and relevant international research literature, with the goal of informing national learning and influencing national actions to help reduce the risk of patient misidentification.

This NLR has used the following approaches and has combined the findings to make safety recommendations and safety observations.

  • Secondary analysis: six previous HSIB investigation reports were analysed to identify themes around the factors that lead to patient misidentification.
  • Review of HSIB’s safety interventions: safety recommendations and safety observations from the HSIB investigation reports were categorised to explore how they aimed to reduce the risk of patient misidentification.
  • Review of the literature: 12 review articles around new and developing opportunities to reduce the risk of patient misidentification were identified and their findings collated.


  • Patient misidentification is challenging to address and previous efforts to reduce the risk have not been as successful as hoped. There may be a benefit in proactively ensuring that processes for identifying patients are safe, rather than reacting to incidents of harm.
  • Positive patient identification is seen as a routine task, but is common, complex and critical for patient safety. It relies on staff following instructions described in policies and procedures, which might not always be fully appropriate to the circumstances within which staff are identifying patients.
  • Patients are at higher risk of being misidentified in certain situations and settings. Examples include handovers and when care is transferred between different healthcare organisations.
  • The risk of patient misidentification is underestimated and patient misidentification can result in significant harm to patients. Under-recognition of the risk is preventing allocation of already limited safety resources to further mitigate the risk.
  • The main control in preventing patient misidentification in England is the NHS number. However, there is sometimes no, varied or limited use of the NHS number in clinical practice due to various factors.
  • Technology alone is unlikely to reduce the risk of patient misidentification. Work systems involving people, technology and tools need to be designed to improve identification processes.
  • The designs of current software and identification processes may be disadvantaging some patient groups (for example, patients with a disability or of certain cultural backgrounds) due to limited consideration of their needs.
  • It is not yet possible to eliminate the risk of patient misidentification. However, a series of interventions – including using new technologies and optimising workplaces – may help to reduce the risk.
  • When a patient is misidentified, it is difficult to correct the misidentification and ensure their records are made accurate.