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Biometrics in healthcare further protects clinical data

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Biometric verification improves patient safety, care quality

Biometric authentication is considered a more reliable means of patient identification because identifiers are unique to each individual. But the technology is not without risks.

Healthcare in the United States is a trillion-dollar industry that is regularly subjected to some type of threat,...

whether it be ransomware taking down thousands of hospital computers, identity thieves seeking to gain access to sensitive patient information, healthcare fraud and abuse that can cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year, or administrative errors that can lead to life-threatening consequences for patients.

As such, there is an ever-evolving need for safety and security protocols, especially when it comes to protecting the sensitive data gathered on patients and how it is accessed, stored and used. As modern security measures grow in sophistication to adhere to mandated guidelines, coupled with efforts to curb fraud, abuse and errors, more healthcare organizations have considered alternative options such as biometric verification to authenticate the identities of patients and staff.

Biometric verification use in hospitals and similar clinical environments has been shown to improve quality of care, increase staff security, reduce costs associated with healthcare abuse and identity fraud, and eliminate potentially life-threatening medical errors resulting from misidentifying a patient. Enhancing identification protocols with biometrics ensures the information accessed by medical personnel is more accurate, thus narrowing the margin of error in terms of patients receiving the wrong treatment or prescribed medications.

Once a user's biometric identifiers have been gathered and stored in a system's secure database, authentication using biometric verification can then be used in lieu of security tokens, physical IDs, and passwords. Biometric verification is considered more reliable than using token (e.g., access card or fob) and knowledge-based (e.g., password or PIN) verification methods since the identifiers are unique to each individual. Instead, a match is made between the digitally stored biometric identifiers and the user each time the profile is accessed. With advances in biometric security, the process of identifying and verifying an individual is virtually instantaneous.

Biometrics benefits healthcare and patients

Patient identification, patient record maintenance and information security are some of the biggest challenges for any healthcare facility.

The identification process plays a crucial role when providing treatment. Unconscious patients, for example, are not able to provide their name and may not have any physical identification on their person at the point of care. While medical personnel will render care on Jane or John Doe, they do so unaware of the patient's pre-existing medical history until they can identify the person.

Traditional patient tagging (e.g., bracelet, barcode) is also not flawless as there is the possibility of clerical-human error. This can result in an incorrect tag or mismatch between a patient tag and hospital records. Each error can then lead to improper identification, incorrect drug administration, errors in blood type for transfusion or treatment protocol -- all of which can be life-threatening.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., with an average of 700 preventable deaths per day. Properly digitizing patient information with corresponding biometric verification tools can prevent misidentification-related medical errors, reduce billing fraud, further the stability of health information exchanges (HIEs) and improve the reaction time in medical emergencies.

Digital fingerprinting, for example, replaces the use of patient wristbands and barcodes. Fingerprints can be scanned and used to uniquely identify individuals from an entire population, even among twins, as they have different sets of fingerprints. With a fingerprint or palm scan, patients who are unconscious or unable to clearly communicate with staff can still be quickly identified and treated. Using biometric technology can quickly reveal pertinent information in the patient's electronic medical file, like allergies and current medications, to emergency medical staff.

What is biometrics?

Biometrics generally refers to the body measurements and calculated metrics related to physical human characteristics. In terms of computer science, biometric authentication is a form of identification and access control that uses unique human attributes as user identifiers.

Biometric identifiers -- the distinctive, measurable characteristics used to label and describe individuals -- are collected from a registering user and placed into a secure database. Primary forms of biometric identifiers include, but are not limited to the following:

  • fingerprints
  • palm prints and vein patterns
  • hand geometry
  • facial recognition
  • iris recognition
  • retina scans
  • DNA

 Many of the biometric identifying technologies -- such as fingerprinting, facial recognition and retina scanning -- are commonly found in other sectors -- such as law enforcement, finance-security, and smartphone and mobile technology manufacturing.

Most biometric systems are easy to use. Users do not need to remember passwords or PINs, or keep up with badges or keys, and user accounts cannot be shared. If additional security is needed, it is possible to use multiple biometric technologies, such as facial recognition or iris recognition, alongside fingerprint readers.

Biometric-based identity management is often more efficient and reliable compared to legacy or manual systems. They can be used to register new patients and manage visitors, make sure that medication is dispensed accurately, process medical claims payments, protect the privacy of patient information and secure access to the premises.

Fingerprint readers also eliminate the unauthorized sharing of passwords that can be compromised if written down and kept in unsecure locations. Biometric authentication allows users to log in to their computer or workstation, protects patient records, discourages impostors and hackers from breaking into a system, and helps the healthcare facility remain compliant with government regulations. Government regulations mandate the tracking of electronic records each time a physician or healthcare professional accesses a patient's record. Implementing fingerprint authentication makes it extremely convenient for approved personnel to access patient data. Any mismatched or unauthorized attempts to access secure records can be flagged, and the appropriate authorities can then be instantly alerted.

Electric patient information is shared across various approved providers, so accurate patient identification is crucial. When multiple records exist for the same patient, there's a strong likelihood that one will be incomplete, potentially putting the patient at risk for drug interactions or unnecessary tests and procedures. Biometric patient identification can eliminate the need for patients to fill out multiple forms at each separate visit and ensure that all data is saved to the patient's HIE profile.

In terms of one common type of health insurance fraud orchestrated by those attempting to seek medical care while using someone else's identity, biometric verification would out the individual as an imposter. Once a patient is positively identified with a biometric, their electronic medical records can be fetched immediately.

It is worth noting that not all biometric technologies will suit all users. Biometric systems are not without their own vulnerabilities, and some users have voiced concerns over the potential misuse of their biometric information. The cost of setting up new biometric systems is also expensive. As such, many facilities are not doing away with PINs, passwords or keycard entries just yet.

Still, according to the Global Healthcare Biometrics Market Forecast 2018-2028, the global healthcare biometrics market is expected to grow to $14.65 billion by 2028, up from $1.36 billion in 2016. Much of the growth has been attributed to government initiatives backing the implementation and use of healthcare biometrics, given the rise in data breaches and identity theft.

This was last published in August 2018

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