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Study finds problems with incorrect ethnicity on health records

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Tuesday 15 June 2010 9:03am

Many people may have the wrong ethnicity recorded in their health records, according to a new study by Professor Pauline Norris, Dr Simon Horsburgh and students from the School of Pharmacy, University of Otago.

The study found that only 34 per cent of a sample of Korean, Chinese and Sri Lankan people from around New Zealand had their correct ethnicity recorded. Most of the rest were recorded as another Asian ethnicity, but 24 had a non-Asian ethnicity recorded (such as European or Middle Eastern) and 37 had no ethnicity recorded.

The researchers highlight the importance of people using the same name consistently when interacting with health services and checking that their name is spelt correctly on their records.

“It is very important that ethnicity is recorded accurately, because this is used to find out whether particular health problems are more prevalent in some communities, and whether people in these communities have fair access to health services,” says Professor Norris.

There is an increasing trend to give “New Zealander” as an ethnicity, Professor Norris says.

“While it’s great that people express their feelings of belonging and national identity in this way, it is not very helpful for tracking patterns of health problems in ethnic communities.
“For example, if a particular health problem became more common amongst Koreans, this might go undetected if Koreans were not accurately identified as such in their health records.”

Professor Norris believes that people may sometimes be reluctant to tell healthcare providers their ethnicity, but they should feel free to discuss how their information will be stored and used.

Professor Norris and Dr Horsburgh recommend that when people visit their GP they ask reception staff to check what ethnicity they have recorded for them, and ask them to correct if it is wrong.

Notes to editor:

The study, published this week in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health looked at NHI numbers and ethnicity. NHI numbers are unique numbers (three letters and four numbers) that link a person’s health records with basic information about them (including their ethnicity).

Each person is supposed to have one unique National Health Index number so that healthcare providers can identify them, and keep records of their health problems and previous treatment. No NHI number could be found for 28 per cent of the people in the study. This may be because they had had no contact with New Zealand health services, but the researchers say it is more likely that their name was recorded differently when they enrolled with healthcare providers.

The students involved were Rajan Ragupathy, Andrew Fussell, Priyanwada Padukkage, Nah Yeon (Tina) Baik, Duhee Kim, and Sarah Hutchinson.

For more information, contact

Professor Pauline Norris
School of Pharmacy
University of Otago

Dr Simon Horsburgh
School of Pharmacy
University of Otago

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