Biometrics – The key to safe and secure EMR identification

Accurate patient identification is critical to achieving the benefits of electronic medical records and to ensuring patient safety. There is also an increasing need for positive staff ID to protect patient privacy and track e-prescribing.

On a visit to a specialist not too long ago, I became aware during the visit that the chart the technician was using to assess my progress was not my chart. When she read aloud from the chart information that stated “32 year old male” I was confused and flattered. You see I’m 64. Even after reading it aloud she still did not realize the error. After she left the room I took the chart back to the front desk to get the problem corrected.


Patient ID. Electronic medical record (EMR) systems are powerful tools for improving care, but their power also expands opportunities for error. As EMRs and Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) are installed, more patient information is stored and retrieved, in more discrete access events, in more records, from more locations, by more people. The goal is a single record for each patient identified in a master patient index (MPI), with perfect integrity for each record. As systems expand, the number of records with similar names and birth dates increases. Given these factors, errors will inevitably increase unless administrators take proactive steps to create a 100% accurate link between the patient and the MPI record.

If a health worker were busy handling the phone and multiple patient check-ins at one time, it would be easy to click the wrong patient on a computer screen. There are additional ways including checking the patient’s birth date, but it is still possible to make a mistake.

The acceptable error rate for identifying a patient is zero, because we’re talking about people’s lives here. People can get hurt and die. You have probably heard horror stories about medical mistakes made because of misidentification or carelessness.

With growing concerns about such errors, medical identity theft and insurance fraud, health technology experts say more hospitals, clinics and practices are looking for better identification tools.
Biometrics may offer the best solution for positive identification available today. Biometric identification methods include fingerprints, palm scans, iris scans, embedded ID chips, and facial scans. Experience has shown that the use of fingerprints is undesirable, because some patients associated that with the police and crime. Palm readers that required physical contact could easily spread germs. Facial scanning is too new and expensive for general use. I won’t even get into the embedded chip debate.

A really strong contender for a solution may be using the iris scanner because it does not require touching and does not carry the negative connotations of using fingerprints, does not have the Orwellian overtones of Big Brother as with the embedded chip, and is becoming inexpensive enough for implementation in large and small medical settings. Of course you have to be sure you are inputting the correct data when you set up any biometric identification system or you are doomed from the start.