A new computerised ‘numbers for babies’ system went live across the NHS at midnight on 29 October, marking a significant step towards the goal of electronic patient records.

Starting today all babies born in England and Wales are to be issued with an NHS number at birth, helping to ensure that personal records are consistent and universally available to relevant NHS staff from day one.

Until now, babies have not been given an NHS Number until they have been officially registered at the Registrar of Births and Deaths – a process that can take six weeks. During these initial weeks, the baby may have undergone tests and treatment in different locations, and may possibly have changed name or address.

The NHS number will now be issued by midwives though a new computerised Central Issue System (CIS), developed and supported by BT’s systems integration arm Syntegra in a deal worth around £2m over eight years. The system is accessed using the NHSnet secure wide area network.

NHS Numbers for Babies (NN4B) was set up and implemented by the NHS Information Authority (NHS IA), the body responsible for delivering high quality electronic information throughout the NHS.

Martin Weller, the NHSIA’s communications manager, explains: "The new system marks an important advance in NHS administration: it provides additional safeguards in the key early stages of a child’s life and ensures that a comprehensive health record is available wherever and whenever it is needed."

The new computerised procedure underwent rigorous testing in the initial stages and by 29 October every Maternity and Child Health Department in England and Wales will have had experience of using the system in a ‘live environment’.

The system is designed to be simple to use and will make it easier for NHS staff to match test results, monitor quality of care and improve neonatal research.

Midwives will request and receive a newborn baby’s NHS Number as soon as possible after birth by connecting to the new NHS Central Issue System. The number is then passed on to the Registrar of Births and Deaths by the Child Health Department in a reversal of the previous procedure.

Organisations supporting the initiative include the British Medical Association and the Royal Colleges of Midwives, Nurses, Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Academy of Colleges Information Group and the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association.