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Biometrics: Coming Soon to A Hospital Near You

With biometric technologies rapidly improving and prices dropping, more and more industries and sectors are looking to improve security and data management with these capabilities. Amusement parks, graduate school tests and even community colleges are already taking the plunge, and healthcare centers nationwide are next with smart cards, fingerprint, vascular and iris biometrics making appearances in select hospitals.

Healthcare IT consultant Mike Wisz points out in this article that healthcare centers are hotbeds for misidentification, privacy breaches, transcription errors and insurance fraud -- it was only a matter of time before these technologies made their way into ORs and hospital wings to improve the accuracy and integrity of medical care. In a service industry with drastic consequences, utilizing biometrics to automate authentication procedures has long been in the works. However, kinks still need to be worked out to ensure the technology's long-term viability in the industry.

Implementing fingerprinting in hospitals, in particular, poses some interesting challenges. The typical procedure involves users manually entering a user ID, then pressing their exposed index finger over the reading device. Read: prints require skin contact with the device, and therefore are susceptible to germs and bacteria spreading. In a hospital? I don't think so. A few more hurdles for that one...

Vascular and iris biometrics, on the other hand, are up and coming and do not require skin contact; however, they do come with much larger pricetags and untested patient waters.

Urban Health Plan in Bronx, N.Y. is one of the first health centers in the country to utilize iris identification technology to perform instantaneous iris pattern scans in order to effectively authenticate individuals. Vascular biometrics, on the other hand, circumvent contact issues between readers and people by scanning underneath the skin via passive infrared technology to illuminate veins and record images associated uniquely to individuals. Both remain largely unfamiliar to patients, and in such a serious environment as a hospital offers, that obstacle will be hard to bypass.

However, the payoffs are pretty significant -- like in other industries such as retail, we can predict that the investment in upgraded biometrics equipment for hospitals will be most quickly apparent in reduced insurance and fraud cases, while also continuing to address ongoing issues surrounding the misidentification of patients. Seems simple enough, but mistakes still do happen.

I don't know about you, but if given the option, I'd rather have my irises scanned or fingerprints taken that having to stare down all those mountains of paperwork. But even better than both might be good old facial recognition. No touching, no staring, and no scanning. Hospitals have enough of that already.

Reader Comments (7)

>Hi Stephen, I agree with you that good old fashion Facial Recognition is the way to go. Just found this video on face recognition entry. The company claims over 40,000 people are uding it.


March 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTerence

>You make excellent points. Identification is a growing problem in health care and errors in finding and using the right record will only increase as databases grow and are linked together. Urban Health Plan (UHP) won the Davies Award this year for their pioneering initiatives in positive patient identification (PPID) and other areas.

I'm one of the designers of the SafeMatch iris identification system used at Urban Health Plan, which makes me biased but also qualified as an expert in biometrics. I can explain why facial recognition isn't being used (and probably won't be) in health care. Iris patterns are far more unique than fingerprints or faces, and iris technology is thus many orders of magnitude more accurate. In independent testing the SafeMatch iris system installed at UHP produced no errors of any kind in 8.5 million simulated ID transactions. In contrast, fingerprint, face, and palm systems all have significant, measurable error rates that would translate directly into recordkeeping and medical errors in clinical environments. Facial identification is the least accurate of these options and would probably be even less reliable than the current error-prone search process based on name, birth date, etc.

In terms of patient experience, iris and facial recognition are very similar. Irises aren't really "scanned," the iris ID process uses a $149 USB digital video camera (basically a special purpose handheld webcam) to identify patients in less than two seconds. It's a safe, comfortable, touch-free digital photography process, just like facial recognition. Iris ID just uses a longer lens that zooms in on the eye rather than taking a picture of the whole face.

Patients have eagerly embraced the UHP iris ID system--they understand that it's there to protect their privacy and prevent medical errors. The patient looks at the camera briefly at each stage of treatment and their record is immediately retrieved, without any other information.

If you'd like to see it in action, a three-minute video case study about the UHP installation is posted at

Best regards,
Evan Smith
CEO, Eye Controls

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