Biometrics gain popularity in healthcare industry

Palm readers now being used to verify patient data

A perceptive palm reader is helping one of the largest healthcare systems in the U.S. divine the true identities of its patients, ushering in a new era of biometric identity verification.

The device, resembling a small black cube and manufactured by Tokyo-based Fujitsu Corp., uses a vascular pattern recognition system to accurately identify people while they hold their palm just above the cube. The scan, requiring less than a second, captures the unique branching pattern of blood veins and instantly converts key data points into a numerical code that can be compared with other palm scans to identify matches. The miniaturized device can plug into a laptop computer via a USB port, while an alternative version released last year incorporates the palm scanner into a computer mouse to facilitate secure logins.

Carolinas HealthCare System, the nation's third largest public healthcare provider, began using PalmSecure last year in several major hospitals as part of the nation's first biometric patient identification system based on vascular recognition technology. Now deployed at eight locations and two urgent care facilities, the identification program has enrolled about 170,000 patients in all. Once patients have registered their unique biometric "vein template," it can be linked directly to their medical records.

"We have had excellent patient response and the product has performed well with no failures or replacements required to date after more than one year of use," said Carolinas spokesman Jim Burke in an e-mail interview. The main challenge, Burke said, has been educating patients on the program's benefits.

By accurately identifying patients when they check in, he said, the palm-based system has virtually eliminated the risk that a person's Social Security number or health insurance identification card could be used by someone else to fraudulently access their records or access healthcare services.

How it works At its core, the palm-reading system works by recording subdermal vein patterns.

"Subdermal means the information resides inside a person's skin, and it cannot be altered by external factors such as cuts, burns, abrasions and any other skin condition," said Hiroko Naito, business development manager at Fujitsu Computer Products of America. The technology extracts enough information from the vein pattern to create a unique template.

To acquire each vein pattern template, the technology uses "near-infrared reflection photography," in which a high-performance camera essentially snaps a digital picture of the vein pattern within a person's palm. The method exploits a distinctive characteristic of deoxygenated hemoglobin carried by blood: its ability to absorb near-infrared light and create a unique distortion of the light reflected back.

A computer algorithm extracts several data points from the resulting image and converts them into a compressed, encrypted and numbered vein template. The number can be correlated with bank, medical or other personal accounts, and a matching algorithm produces a similarity score for every new palm scan, deciding whether a similarity threshold has been exceeded and the pair can be scored as a match.

More accurate than fingerprints Many banks in Japan have similarly begun using palm-based recognition as an extra level of security in case ATM cards are lost or stolen, Naito said.

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