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A Glimpse at the Future: What’s in Store for Biometric Patient Identifiers
By Vicki Wheatley, RHIA

Facial recognition. Retina scans. Palm-vein and fingerprint readers. These are just a few of the biometric identification technologies health care organizations are beginning to leverage to improve access to and preserve the security of patients’ health information.

Although the futuristic body-scanning devices featured in popular science fiction series still are far down the line, innovative health care organizations are enlisting biometrics now to support smoother and safer patient access and information sharing.

Current State of Biometrics
Various industries already incorporate biometrics into their services or product-related features and tools. For instance, several brands of smartphones and tablets employ biometrics for security purposes, offering fingerprint scanning in place of passwords. Similarly, social media sites are using facial recognition software to automatically identify users and prompt them to “tag” friends and family when they post new photos, identifying each individual based on existing tagged photos.

Though hospitals aren’t scanning patient faces and retrieving health records as soon as patients walk through the door, some are using biometric tools to ease the registration process for returning patients, eliminating the round of 20 Questions that typically accompanies patient visits. Not only does this make the registration process more convenient and efficient, it also ensures the patient’s identity and health record are a match.

Accurately Identifying Patients With a Helping Hand
Because biological patterns found in fingerprints, palm veins, and retinas are unique to each person and will never change, using biometrics provides a reliable, time-saving method for accurately, efficiently, and easily identifying patients. Biometrics also safeguard patient information, as the technology protects against fraud and minimizes the need to enter new information into patient records, limiting the human element involved with data entry. This also makes it easier to match patient records in future visits.

Those organizations using biometric technology employ palm-vein and fingerprint scanners most often, as these provide the opportunity for enrolled patients to quickly register at any facility entry point, including the emergency department, inpatient areas, or outpatient locations, simply by placing a hand or finger on a self-service kiosk or other reading device. Retinal scanning devices also are becoming available, but this technology tends to be more challenging and invasive for patients to accept and use at registration desks.

Unfortunately, biometric technologies have their limitations and can’t be used alone—at least not at this time—to identify and link patients to existing records within an organization’s patient index. For instance, historical records in paper and electronic archives aren’t tagged and linked with biometric identifiers until patients enroll in the biometric system and those linkages are created. Today, biometric technology isn’t readily available to work with mobile devices or from a patient’s home computer. In order to be identified with biometrics, patients must be present and willing to interact with the technology provided by the health care organization. The widespread adoption of biometric identification and authentication will be limited until the technology is easily available, accessible remotely, and in use by providers and patients alike.

When paired with other patient identifiers and tools, such as smart cards, government-issued photo IDs, and patient information collected during the authentication process, biometrics can strengthen existing patient identification strategies. They add on more authentication points, verifying a patient’s identity, reducing the risk of fraud, and increasing the likelihood that the patient matches the linked health record.

From a patient safety perspective, this virtual double check is key to ensuring the correct patient is identified and the correct information is available to providers. Using biometrics also ensures that patient health care information is linked with a unique identifier, reducing the likelihood of fragmented records or records comingled with those of a different individual. This increased accuracy gives patients and providers the added peace of mind that the hospital has the most complete and relevant information to treat their condition.

Plus, unlike smart cards, photo IDs, voluntary health care IDs, and other modes of identification, patients always have their hands and fingers with them, allowing for effortless biometric registration at a time when they may not feel up to or be able to answer routine questions.

Moving Beyond Smartphones
While younger patient populations generally embrace biometric technology for its convenience and may prefer it to traditional interactions, patient support for this technology is far from universal. In fact, challenges with adoption by patients and/or hospital staff likely will prevent biometrics from becoming a primary method of patient identification.

Whether out of fear or a desire to keep information as private as possible, some patients will resist the technology because they associate it with Big Brother. While others may not have privacy concerns, they may have cultural objections or relate the technology to government criminal surveillance and decide not to participate, a problem impacting the adoption of fingerprinting technology in particular. Likewise, complete adoption by staff is unlikely, as some may bypass the technology if they know or feel they’ve sufficiently identified the patient in other ways.

Despite its challenges, the use of biometrics likely will increase over the next several years as technology evolves and becomes readily available and less expensive. Advances with smartphones and other mobile devices equipped with facial recognition software or additional apps may even give patients the option to turn their gadgets into mobile biometric readers, allowing health care organizations to verify patient identities regardless of patient location.

Now and in the future, health care organizations will need to equip themselves with effective tools that link the right health information with the right patient. Many hospitals may already leverage a combination of patient-matching algorithms, patient identification numbers, smart cards, or other tools. By adding biometrics to this arsenal, organizations can benefit from another consistent method for identifying patients while securing their information, further strengthening patient identification strategies and, ultimately, patient care.

— Vicki Wheatley, RHIA, is executive vice president of enterprise master person index solutions at QuadraMed.