Eye of the Beholder: How Iris Biometrics Could Help Solve Hospital Patient ID Problems

As healthcare continues its shift toward mass digitalization, more hospitals want to make sure the electronic information of their patients is not compromised. This especially includes an emphasis on proper patient identification.

The days of authenticating a patient's identity based solely on an insurance card or credential are waning. Instead, one of the growing technologies that hospitals are utilizing to identify patients properly is biometrics. Simply put, biometrics is technology that identifies patients through characteristics or traits, such as fingerprints and palms.

Lee Powe, CIO of Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital in Elkin, N.C., says his hospital has invested in an even more advanced form of the technology: iris biometrics. The iris biometric system his hospital uses lines the patient's eyes up with a camera, the camera snaps a unique photo that captures the patient's specific iris traits, and it also takes a photo of the patient's face — all of which are embedded in the patient's medical record.

Simple as that. The patient is either identified or placed into the system database for the first time. For hospitals and health systems concerned about patient safety and patient ID matters, here is a primer on the iris biometric technology.

Benefits of iris biometrics

Mr. Powe says there are obvious benefits to these types of biometric systems in hospitals: It creates better patient safety standards, reduces hospital liability, prevents medical identify theft and fraud since the iris scans are just as unique as a person's fingerprint and lowers any language barriers. He was just uncertain how patients would react to it.

"I understood what [iris biometrics] was about, but I didn't know how it'd fit here," Mr. Powe says. "But when we put this system in place and started taking iris scans, people would say, 'Hey, can you do my kids while we're here?' 'Can you do my husband or my wife?' They embraced it, and it floored me to see that."

Michael Trader, president of technology firm M2SYS, which worked with Hugh Chatham on its biometric solution, adds that this type of patient ID technology prevents duplicate medical records and overlays. He says duplicate records can hinder hospitals financially and negatively impact patient safety, but the right biometric system can prevent duplicates if they are equipped with a de-duplication mechanism during patient enrollment.

One of the other major benefits, according to Mr. Powe, is the hands-off approach — literally. Patients do not have to touch any equipment with an iris scan, which helps hospitals in their infection control efforts.

"Since you don't have to touch it, it's an infection control measure," Mr. Powe says. "A lot of people don't come to the hospital because they are healthy. With palm scanning, you put your hand down, then sanitize it and clean it to keep someone from passing infections. But that's not the case here. You just sit in a chair, line your eyes up with a camera, take the picture and you're done."

Challenges of iris biometrics

Of course, iris biometrics is not without challenges. Making the financial commitment to a new patient ID system is one of the more obvious challenges, especially as hospitals struggle with shrinking budgets. Additionally, while Mr. Powe says many patients at Hugh Chatham were receptive to the technology, others may have privacy concerns.

Another main issue involves the type of verification. With biometrics, there are three different ways to identify a patient:

•    One-to-one (1:1) verification. This type of identification involves a patient's biometric scan after some type of document (e.g., Social Security card or driver's license) or credential (e.g., PIN number) is provided. The system is only comparing one biometric template against another biometric template, so 1:1 answers the question, "Are you who you claim to be?"

•    One-to-few (1:Few) verification. This involves a patient's biometric scan with some type of general ID information, such as the patient's date of birth or gender. This cannot entirely prevent duplicates, overlays or fraud because the system is only matching against a segment of the total biometric database.

•    One-to-many (1:N) verification. 1:N only involves the patient's biometric scan and answers the question, "Who are you?"

Although iris recognition is considered to be one of the most accurate forms of biometrics, hospitals cannot rely on biometrics alone, and it is up to hospitals to have the right type of verification in lockstep with the iris scan.

While iris biometrics is blossoming within the healthcare information technology field, hospitals have to weigh all their technological options. However, iris biometrics is giving hospitals a more unique way to identify patients securely, which Mr. Powe says has made a major difference at his hospital.

"We always want proper identification of a patient when they come into the hospital organization," Mr. Powe says. "If staff members are using the technology the way they are supposed to, it's making all of our jobs a lot easier."

More Articles on Healthcare and Biometrics:

Is Biometrics the Answer to Healthcare Data Integrity?

Building a Foundation Today for Analytics Tomorrow: Health IT Thoughts From IBM

Hospitals Adopt Biometrics Technology for Security

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