Case Study: Iris Scans for Patient ID

An urban clinic avoids calling up the wrong record
Case Study: Iris Scans for Patient ID
Why would a clinic serving uninsured and Medicaid patients in New York City invest in futuristic iris scanners? Because the technology helps the clinic avoid calling up the wrong patient record because of mistaken identity and also serves as a useful fraud prevention tool.

At Urban Health Plan, a New York clinic that serves about 37,000 primarily Hispanic patients in the Bronx and at a satellite facility in Queens, it's common for dozens of patients to have the same first and last names.

The iris scanners "decrease the possibility of making a mistake" involving a doctor or nurse viewing the wrong patient's electronic health record and, as a result, making bad treatment decisions, says Samuel De Leon, M.D., chief medical officer.

Many healthcare organizations will consider biometric authentication for patients as they ramp up their use of electronic health records, some observers say. In addition to iris scanning, some organizations are turning to palm scanning systems for patient authentication.

Avoiding errors

After implementing EHRs from eClinicalWorks, Westborough, Mass., the urban clinic wanted to take further steps to help avoid errors. De Leon spotted a magazine advertisement for iris scanners and decided to investigate the technology.

"This interested me because it was close to something that we already did, which was to take a photo of the patient and include it in their electronic record," the physician says.

The clinic liked the concept of iris scans better than other biometric options, says Alison Connelly-Flores, clinical system administrator. It judged the technology to be more acceptable to patients than fingerprint scans, often associated with law enforcement. And it liked that the technology identified patients without any physical contact, minimizing the risk of infection.

But the iris scanners, from Eye Controls LLC, Chantilly, Va., were too bulky and expensive, at more than $4,000 each. So the clinic became a beta site, helping the company refine its technology. Eventually, it purchased about 60 of the dramatically downsized iris-scanning devices for about $150 each, plus the cost of related software. A state grant paid for a small portion of the cost.

Today, the scanners are at the reception desks as well as in exam rooms. For example, a physician preparing to examine a patient scans their iris to gain access to the appropriate progress note in the electronic record.

So far, relatively few patients have resisted having their eyes scanned. If a patient declines because they find the technology intrusive, a physician offers a detailed explanation of the reasons behind it, which generally wins them over, De Leon says.

Fraud fighter

The technology helps fight fraud by making it difficult to assume someone else's identity. "If a twin brother comes in or someone trying to impersonate someone else, the iris won't be recognized, and that sets off a warning," De Leon says. "When people see that happen, they walk away."

The clinic is considering eventually using iris scanners for its own staff as a form of two-factor authentication for accessing electronic records. But it chose to use the technology for patients first because of its value in avoiding medical errors, the medical director says.

"It's important to address the patients first."

About the Author

Howard Anderson

Howard Anderson

Former News Editor, ISMG

Anderson was news editor of Information Security Media Group and founding editor of HealthcareInfoSecurity and DataBreachToday. He has more than 40 years of journalism experience, with a focus on healthcare information technology issues. Before launching HealthcareInfoSecurity, he served as founding editor of Health Data Management magazine, where he worked for 17 years, and he served in leadership roles at several other healthcare magazines and newspapers.

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