HEALTH Minister James Reilly is under pressure from the troika to give each patient their own unique number so that their use of prescription drugs can be tracked.
The lack of such a "health identifier" has been cited as one of the main reasons why the HSE is finding it so difficult to control the €2bn annual spend on prescription drugs.
Under the system demanded by the troika, every patient would have their own number – similar to a PPS number – and every pharmacy would also have a number.
This would allow the HSE to check the number of drugs being supplied to individual patients and to compare it to practice in other pharmacies
In its latest report on our bailout programme, the European Commission warned that "priority" should be given to introducing these unique patient numbers. It said this would allow for "inefficiences" to be tackled in drug prescription practices and overall drugs spending.
"By international comparison, Ireland is starting late on this process. By 2010, 18 EU member states already had unique patient identifiers in place," it said.
Under the new system, the unique health number would allow a patient's entire medical records to be accessed on a national database by medical professionals, which would lead to a vast improvement in the quality of care.
The Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) has been calling for the introduction of unique patient numbers for the past three years to ensure "maximum patient safety".
It said in the absence of such numbers there had been thousands of cases in hospitals where incorrect doses of medicine were given or where wrong medical records were used.
And it has estimated that up to 30pc of the €16bn health budget is spent on handling patient information, collecting it, looking for it and storing it.
Under the new system, doctors, physiotherapists and other health professionals would also be given unique numbers to identify them. They would keep the same number even if they changed job or moved to a different location.
But despite the pressure, the legislation is not due to be published until the end of this year.
Due to people's privacy concerns, the Government has given a commitment that the Health Information Bill will include criminal penalties for those who illegally trade people's personal health records.
The department has said that patient numbers will be of benefit to medical staff and patients by cutting down on the costly and time-consuming process of locating and updating records.
A spokesman for Dr Reilly said that a number of issues still had to be resolved in regard to unique patient numbers -but that the necessary legislation would be brought forward as soon as possible. He said it was not possible to say when the unique patient numbers might be introduced.
The Department of Health is due to set up an implementation group to roll out the patient numbers once the legislation is passed.