From The Editor | May 20, 2010

Are Biometrics The Key To Health IT Security?

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By Ken Congdon, editor in chief, Health IT Outcomes

We've all seen the movies and television programs where high-security government facilities or corporate offices are protected by biometric terminals that only grant access to individuals that provide an accepted scan of their finger, palm, or iris. Well, if recent trends are any indication, this advanced technology could soon have a major impact in the healthcare industry as well. Recent EHR, patient privacy, and fraud reduction initiatives in healthcare have made data security a top priority in this sector, and many believe biometrics is the best way to ensure vital patient information doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

Types Of Biometric Technologies
There are a variety of biometric technologies available today ? all with their own pros and cons. Perhaps the most mature, and most commonly used, biometric technologies are fingerprint, thumbprint, or palm print solutions. These devices identify a person based on the identifying print patterns on the surface of the hand. These solutions are proven and among the most affordable biometric solutions available today, but they do have some weaknesses. First, fingerprints or palm prints can be relatively easy to forge. Fingerprints are something everyone leaves behind and they can be copied by forgers using simple household items like scotch tape or gummy bears. In fact, tests have shown that fingerprints left on gummy bears are effective at fooling many fingerprint scanners. Another weakness of finger/hand print devices is that not everyone has readable fingerprints. In fact, studies show that between 5% to 10% of people have unusable fingerprints due to wear or skin conditions. Finally, fingerprints have a long history of being used to identify people in law enforcement, which can have negative connotations in healthcare.

"The general public is often weary of the healthcare industry deploying fingerprint biometric solutions because of the history of fingerprint technology use by law enforcement," says Lew Iadarola, sales manager for Hitachi America, Ltd. "They don't like the idea that a simple visit to the doctor to obtain a prescription or treat a broken leg could potentially provide a link to their criminal record." Iris scan biometrics solutions are much more difficult to forge and provide a more unique identifier than finger/hand print technologies. In fact, iris patterns are said to be the most unique identifying characteristic of an individual next to DNA. However, these solutions can be expensive and difficult to deploy in healthcare environments.

A relatively new type of biometric solution currently receiving a great deal of attention in healthcare circles is vein pattern biometric technology. These solutions recognize the vein pattern in a person's finger or hand. These patterns or more unique than a fingerprint and more difficult to forge. Since the vein pattern resides underneath the skin, it can't be left behind for forgers to capture and copy. Furthermore, the technology does more than identify the vein pattern ? it also senses blood flow. Therefore, a forger would not only need to effectively forge a vein patter, but duplicate blood flow in order to fool the system.

Key Applications For Biometrics In Healthcare
The primary application for biometrics in a healthcare environment is patient identification. First, biometric technology can be leveraged at administration areas to register a patient. After an initial scan, the identifying characteristics in the scan can be linked to the patient's record. In every subsequent visit, the patient will no longer have to go through the lengthy registration process (i.e. filling out paper work, submitting an insurance card, etc.). Instead, all of this data can be automatically populated based on the stored information linked to the biometric scan. This automated process can make your administrative staff more productive and improve the patient experience. Biometric technology can also help to safeguard against fraud. In other words, identifying patients based on biometric scans eliminates the possibility of a patient using a stolen health insurance card.

Biometrics can also help protect the safety of a patient. Currently, manual tracking and barcode tracking are the most popular practices deployed to track medication administration. Biometric scanning adds a level of confidence to patient identification, ensuring that the right patient is receiving the prescribed medication at the appropriate doses. This helps reduce medication administration errors, patient injuries, and potential lawsuits.

Finally, perhaps the most popular application of biometric technology in the healthcare industry in the coming months will be around EHR tracking. "As hospitals strive to deploy their EHR systems, physicians and patients want assurance that the sensitive data stored in these records is secure," says Iadarola. "Biometrics helps ensure that only those authorized to view a patient's record are given access to it."

For example, a patient's record can be locked and only unlocked by the biometric scans of approved physicians and the patient. Furthermore, the healthcare facility (or even the authorities) can be notified any time an individual without an approved scan attempts to access the patient record.

Only time will tell how big an impact biometric technology will have on the future of healthcare, but the applications are indeed promising. Plus, in today's struggling economy, the money needed to invest in biometric technology may be outweighed by the money that can be gained via the increased productivity, accuracy, and fraud protection the technology provides.

Ken Congdon is Editor In Chief of Health IT Outcomes. He can be reached at