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Biometrics: Patient Identification is Only the Beginning

By Martha Crombie, Contributing Writer, HealthStream

You never know what you’ll learn over sushi. I had lunch recently with a former colleague, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him I was writing an article about positive patient identification using biometric identification to prevent duplicate patient records and medical errors.

Registration by Hand…or Hand scan?

My research revealed that current state-of-the-art technology relies on either facial recognition or scans of the vein pattern in the patient’s hand, the latter believed to be more reliable than a thumbprint. For providers lacking the budget to invest in the latest technology, CMS requires the use of a master patient index (MPI) that employs patient-matching algorithms to detect duplicates. The algorithms rely on basic information like a patient’s first and last name, date of birth, gender, and other attributes (e.g., zip code, telephone number, the last four digits of the Social Security number).  

Registrar Training

At a minimum, registration clerks should be trained on patient entry practices across all entry points (e.g., ER, inpatient, clinic, phone, internet). They must be required to look up every patient in the MPI before creating a new record. The MPI prompts the registrar to review potential matches in the existing database.

Today’s Tech or Star Trek?

Because my friend works for one of the largest tech companies in the world, I asked whether his company was working on biometric identification. His eyes lit up. He described a system that sounded more like something from Star Trek.

“Imagine,” he said, “that you go to an emergency department on a Saturday evening because you fell off a ladder and you’re having back pain. As it is now, you or a friend or family member would need to go to the registration desk to sign in and provide a photo ID. You’d probably be asked to sit in the waiting room until you could be seen by a triage nurse. The nurse would record your vital signs, ask you a few questions about your condition, and determine whether you should be categorized as a high-priority patient or wait your turn.”

Anyone reading this post knows this process is universally loathed by ER patients! All of us, when we go to a hospital emergency department, believe we should be tended to immediately. After all, it’s an emergency!

Warp Speed?

My friend continued: “Fast forward to a day when all emergency departments are outfitted with technology that can accurately identify every individual using biometrics, but identification is just the beginning. You walk up to the desk, and a scanner confirms your identity via facial recognition—no need to show your ID. At the same time, the system pulls up your consolidated medical records. Instant access to your records gives the triage nurse valuable information about your medical history, including drug allergies and pre-existing medical conditions. This saves valuable time.”

From Identification to Diagnostic Support

“When you’re seen by the ER doctor, he or she already knows who you are, has your medical history, current prescriptions and your current symptoms and vital signs. Because you have back pain, your doctor must assess your need for pain medication.”

“Suppose the doctor has already seen two patients on this shift, both addicted to pain medication, who frequent the ER. The doctor is already on alert for signs of addiction. The same facial recognition system used to identify you and pull up your medical record has also scanned your facial expressions, speech patterns, your gait, and other factors in your physical presentation. The new scanning technology uses algorithms to assess these factors to measure your pain level with a high degree of accuracy. As a result, the physician now has evidence that you have a very high level of pain and will prescribe medication to make you more comfortable.”

I tell my friend this technology will be a game changer! This single system not only facilitates positive patient identification and prevents duplicate health records; it also enables timely and appropriate treatment, minimizes drug interactions, and facilitates appropriate matching of pain treatment to pain level. My friend couldn’t say how soon this new technology will be available, but he assured me it’s in progress.

As my thoughts return to Star Trek, I urged him on, saying, “Warp speed, Mr. Sulu!”

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