Biometrics for Patient Identification

Jan. 15, 2021
Another largely untapped opportunity for integrators to use security technology to solve a common problem in the healthcare market
This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Security Business magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention @SecBusinessMag on Twitter and Security Business magazine on LinkedIn.

Medical facilities have little room for error when it comes to identifying patients. They must be identified with 100% accuracy to ensure healthcare teams provide the proper treatment based on a person's medical history.

Record-keeping challenges increase the possibility of misidentification; human error can lead to improperly entered data; and with thousands of names in most hospital digital records, it is not unusual for multiple patients to share a common name and date of birth. A Wall Street Journal article described how easy it is to mistake patients. One large Houston-area healthcare system reported having 138,000 patients with the same names and birthdates. Of those, 2,833 were named Maria Garcia – with 528 sharing the exact date of birth.

Demographic information, such as changes to patients' names and addresses, are not often updated immediately. It is not unusual to find duplicate records for the same patient. For example, a person may provide their given name on a first visit and use a nickname on a return appointment. In 2018, the American Health Information Management Association estimated 5% to 10% of a typical hospital's patient records are duplicates, while providers with multiple facilities or having merged with another system have duplicate rates up to 20%. Those duplicate entries may lack vital information, such as drug allergies.

Many politicians and healthcare industry leaders share a national patient registry goal, enabling a person to be quickly and accurately recognized as they visit different medical providers; however, a 1996 federal law calling for establishing such a registry was quickly rescinded due to privacy concerns. That left hospitals mainly on their own to find ways of improving the identification process.

Biometrics Become the New Alternative

Recently, identification methods such as plastic ID cards and barcoded wristbands are giving way to newer solutions featuring one of three biometric technologies – facial, fingerprint or iris recognition. A glance or a quick touch quickly and accurately identifies patients by matching live scans with stored database measurements of unique physical traits.

Healthcare is ideal for biometrics as the industry requires faster and more accurate ways to verify patient identity, reduce medical errors, combat fraud and lower costs related to billing inaccuracies and redundant testing.

Biometric systems benefit both patients and healthcare providers by linking patients to their medical records and insurance information. Self-check-in kiosks save patients time when they return to the facility for follow-up visits. Healthcare providers can accurately identify unconscious patients previously enrolled in a facility's database. Biometrics make it more difficult for people to provide a false name to receive controlled substance prescriptions.

Patients view their medical records as something shared only with their healthcare providers, and strict regulations require healthcare facilities to prove that all patient data is well protected. Using biometric readers, hospitals can ensure only authorized physicians and other approved healthcare workers may access patient records. Biometric templates are encrypted, and accompanying software includes liveness detection that virtually eliminates spoofing systems with photographs, prosthetics and even amputated digits and eyes.

Enrolling patients into a hospital's biometric database takes a minute or two. Once enrolled, the technology's software recognizes patients at any facility connected to the provider's network. Confirming identity takes a second or two. Portable handheld iris readers, about the size of many mobile phones, enable caregivers to use biometrics virtually anywhere – at a patient's bedside, in a surgical suite or at an outpatient clinic to reduce errors in treatment.

Furthermore, as scientists test potential vaccines and other medical treatments, the use of contactless biometrics can eliminate errors in data collection during clinical trials and provide subject safety from over or under dosages.

Untapped Market Opportunities

Changing public perceptions of biometrics is another factor in the growing acceptance of the technologies that are often viewed as an expensive means of protecting mission-critical public and private facilities. Today, consumers use iris, face or fingerprint recognition to unlock their mobile phones. Medical facilities can use those same embedded readers to ensure a patient's identity while using the growing trend of telemedicine.

Current biometric devices are less expensive than they were only a few years ago, which provides integrators with a better opportunity to make the case for healthcare customers to deploy the technology; in fact, while demand for biometric solutions is surging, many medical facilities have yet to deploy the devices – creating a somewhat untapped market. Biometric devices are no more difficult to install than standard access control reader, and they can address the strong demand for contactless devices brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is projected to remain strong for years to come.

Also, using biometric readers for employee access control and time-and-attendance eliminates the need for facilities to buy, store and print hundreds – or thousands – of plastic access cards annually.

Another Contactless Alternative

The pandemic has altered how hospitals view various biometric technologies. Devices must be contactless, as the virus can live for hours to days on plastic and metal surfaces. Most fingerprint scanners require a person to place fingers on a reader's platform – which defeats the need for touchless solutions. Additionally, fingerprint readers are not the best choice in a facility where staff and some patients wear gloves throughout the day.

Facial-based biometric systems have the benefit of being contactless; however, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has reported varying accuracy issues with these systems for individuals wearing face masks (read more on this study at Facial injuries and bandages also pose problems in authenticating identity.

Contactless iris recognition systems are unaffected by personal protective equipment, including gloves, masks and goggles. The iris structure is fixed by about one year of age, so the systems work well with children. Additionally, iris recognition has the smallest outlier population of the leading biometric technologies, as most people have at least one eye.

Mohammed Murad is VP of global sales and business development for Iris ID. Request more info about the company at