The "common single identifier" numbers, which will be extended to all patients within a year, will replace a numbering system which varies among hospitals and health authorities.
The intention is to cut the cost of data exchange within the health service, which has increased enormously since the start of the internal market. The 10-digit numbers will also simplify the compilation of detailed medical histories for patients on the NHS central register.
Their introduction is certain to raise concerns over the security of patients' personal data and medical records.
Philip Jones, an assistant Data Protection Registrar, said the Registrar's office was satisfied after discussions with the Department of Health that no personal identifying information would be included in the number.
But Linda Lamont, director of the Patients' Association,said people might be suspicious. "We would be concerned if the system made it easier for information to be passed between government departments." She said the Patients' Association had proposed to the Department of Health that there should be a standing committee on patients' records to safeguard confidentiality.
The British Medical Association has urged ministers to enforce a code of confidentiality and has also expressed concern at the threat to patient privacy from an NHS-wide computer network of hospitals, health authorities and GPs being set up by the Department of Health.Reuse content