Biometrics Bring Fingerprint ID to Hospitals

By Stacy Lawrence  |  Posted 03-24-2005
Before a few years ago, biometrics company Ultra-Scan had relatively little interest in the health care sector. But as health information technology started to become a national political imperative, the company began realizing that its fingerprint-scanning technology could help with the complex issue of positive patient identification.

The first rollout of its fingerprint technology in a health care environment was two years ago at the Catholic Health System in Buffalo, N.Y.

The first implementation of fingerprint identification was a standalone system in a single methadone clinic. It was there that the hospital system had an opportunity to work out some of the initial issues with the system and to watch the technology mature, according to Catholic Health System Vice President of IT Jeff Baughan.

Within the last year, Catholic Health System went on to implement the Ultra-Scan fingerprint technology in the admissions process for two out of the four hospitals in its system. Now, when a patient enters the hospital admissions area, staff ask if he or she has been registered via the "Personal Touch System."

Fingerprint registration is entirely voluntary, but with a concerted educational effort these hospitals have been able to achieve about an 85 percent compliance rate upon admission.

This portion of the process involves taking fingerprints from two or three fingers on the left and right hands; scanning two or three pieces of identification, including a driver's license; taking a photo; scanning health insurance information; and getting an electronic version of the patient's signature.

All this is accomplished through an Ultra-Scan unit that incorporates a fingerprint unit, scanner, Web camera and signature block. When a patient already in the system returns, admissions staff identify him or her using a fingerprint and date of birth.

Baughan says this will "typically come back with one or two finds; the staff member will then do a visual of the name and photo and confirm the patient's identity."

This provides much more consistency in patient identification than usually exists. "If you look at how patient identification occurs today, it's usually based on demographics, name and address," observes Ultra-Scan Corp. Vice President Bryan Schutjer. "These are subject to change, all of these are dynamic. Biometrics are static by comparison."

The data gleaned in the fingerprint identification process sits on top of multiple registration systems already in use at the hospitals, thus providing a unique, consistent identifier that's layered on top of existing systems, notes Baughan. This, in addition to assuring positive patient identification, is one of the main benefits of the product.

"The piece that layers on top of all of this is a master person index, an MPI," says Baughan. "The cost of an enterprise-wide MPI system is $15 to $20 million; for a fraction of that we can clean up our MPI system with biometrics."

Another benefit of the fingerprint identification system is that it can help eliminate fraud. As a nonprofit, faith-based institution, "Some of our ministry is providing charity care, but not to the point of being abused," asserts Baughan. "There are people who will take an insurance card and use it among several members in a family and this eliminates that."

One obvious potential concern with fingerprint identification is patient privacy. "I believe any of our records are and can be subpoenaed by law enforcement," says Baughan. But Ultra-Scan's Schutjer says patients' voluntary fingerprints given to a hospital could not be used against them by law enforcement.

"This is not an ink image you would see in a law enforcement application," explains Schutjer. "The fingerprint is reduced to an arithmetic formula, which is a representation of the fingerprint. There is literally no way that you can take that arithmetic formula and recreate the fingerprint."

He goes on to argue that fingerprint ID may even provide greater security. "Patients are incredibly aware of identity theft. Many realize that using biometrics is a much more secure basis for securing health care information."

In the near future, the Catholic Health System plans to roll out biometrics in the admissions process at its remaining two hospitals. Baughan muses that someday biometrics could be useful for positive identification of a nurse at a medication dispensing unit or of a patient at the bedside.

"We usually get one of two responses from hospitals," says Ultra-Scan's Schutjer. "We don't believe in biometrics and we never want to see you again. Or we believe in biometrics and the applications seem endless: like single sign-on applications for personnel, secure access to neonatal facilities—solving issues that were not believed to be easily solvable."