Biometrics leaves imprint on healthcare

By John Andrews
12:00 AM

Healthcare’s shortcomings with regard to IT adoption are well documented. Talk to just about any authority on the subject and they’ll tell you that the industry:

• Is still overly reliant on paper documents

• Has far too many archaic legacy systems in charge of running applications

• Doesn’t do enough to push recalcitrant physicians toward automation

While these assertions may be true, healthcare also holds a distinction no other industry can boast – it is the largest user of fingerprint scanning technology for identification and authentication purposes. At least that’s the finding of Robert Seliger, CEO of Andover, Mass.-based Sentillion.

“The most extensive use of biometrics is by healthcare,” he said. “We have as many as 15,000 users for one customer and have 45,000 to 50,000 caregivers using fingerprint technology on a regular basis. You won’t see that anywhere else.”

While the financial, military and security sectors are also heavy users of biometrics, Seliger contends that healthcare is at the top with regard to fingerprint scanning systems. So does Charles DeWitt, vice president of vertical markets for Chelmsford, Mass.-based Kronos.

“It’s one of the highest, if not the highest,” he said. “We have approximately 4,000 healthcare customers and it represents 30 percent of our revenues.”

So what is it about biometrics that is driving such an impressive adoption rate? Gregg Malkary, managing director and founder of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Spyglass Consulting Group, says it’s a combination of factors.

“Healthcare organizations are focused on patient safety, privacy and cost reduction,” he said. “HIPAA compliance, security issues, JCHAO auditing requirements and the push toward electronic medical records are all motivating factors. What’s more, greater penetration in other markets, such as national security, border patrol and transportation is driving the price points down, making it more affordable for healthcare.”

While fingerprint scanning has gained the most traction among healthcare providers, the biometric category also includes handprints, retinal scans, facial geometry and dynamic signatures. The physiological scanning technology is used to either identify or authenticate computer users before they can gain access to sensitive data. Proponents maintain that it is far superior to typing in passwords – not only does it positively authenticate the user, it eliminates the burden of having to carry around lists of passwords.

 Of all the biometric methods, fingerprint scanning is the most misunderstood, Seliger said, because it works differently than the process used by law enforcement. Where criminal databases contain actual fingerprint images, the Identix system distributed by Sentillion captures unique fingerprint characteristics and translates them into numerical sequences.

“The system stores the numbers, not the images,” Seliger said.

New three-dimensional recognition systems like facial geometry are also starting to make inroads into healthcare, said Cyrus Azar, chief technology officer of Covert, Mich.-based Sensible Vision, which introduced its new FastAccess system at HIMSS ’06 in February.

Though still in its infancy, Azar and co-founder George Brostoff are encouraged by the enthusiastic reception their FastAcess system received at HIMSS.

“It was a great momentum builder for us,” Azar said.

The facial geometry system builds biometric recognition of each user by capturing facial “landmarks” and storing them for future encounters. To fine tune recognition accuracy, the system continually adds new data, such as approach angles and facial variations, such as eyeglasses and hairstyles.

“It continually gets to know you,” Azar said.

The product has been in field trials for the past six months, and Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group is one of the test sites. Lyle Berkowitz, MD, medical director of clinical information systems, said the concept makes perfect sense to him because employee PC sharing is common at the facility and the need for greater data protection is paramount.

“We needed something that could authenticate and secure the system when users were away from the computer,” Berkowitz said. “I know George Brostoff, so when he mentioned the FastAccess system to me, I told him I would love to try it. I’ve used it on my own computer and I’m really happy with it. We’re now trying it in two offices to see how it works on a broader scale. One clinic will be using it in five exam rooms and another in three exam rooms.”

Besides safeguarding sensitive patient data, biometrics can also be used for staff management, DeWitt said. Kronos’ 4500 Touch ID terminals are designed to eliminate “buddy punching,” which the company estimates could save organizations as much as $210 per employee per year.

“It has the potential to reduce labor costs by up to 2.2 percent of gross payroll annually, which could add up to millions,” he said.

Kronos lists more than 1 million employee users of its fingerprint scanning system in various industries. Along with giving employers more control, it also serves as a scheduling conduit for staff to use in bidding on preferred shifts and for vacation planning, DeWitt said. 

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