Biometric Patient IdentificationThe introduction of electronic health records has improved healthcare providers’ abilities to securely exchange patient data. Health data gives practitioners the most up-to-date medical information, including medications, allergies, and other health-related factors that influence treatment. But EHR is only effective if clinicians are confident the health record actual belongs to the person they’re treating.

Unfortunately, no standard for patient identification exists in the U.S. or in much of Europe. Healthcare facilities use whatever means they can to verify patients’ identities. This is troubling, as patient misidentification is a very real global concern: 64 percent of respondents to a Ponemon Institute survey said that patient misidentification happens frequently in healthcare facilities. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that misidentification can lead to medical errors that induce injury or even death.  

Improving patient identification in medical facilities is therefore an important step toward creating a safer and more effective global healthcare environment. Biometric identifiers such as face, fingerprint, iris, and voice represent viable solutions to this problem, especially in regions where trusted identity credentials are not ubiquitous 

Why current methods fail 

Many countries, including the U.S., use demographic data and identity documents to match a patient to a health record. Some common methods include Social Security numbers, identification documents, and information such as name, address, and date of birth. This has proven to be problematic for multiple reasons:  

  • This information can be lost, stolen, or retrieved online and then used fraudulently.  
  • Simple typographical, data-entry, or clerical errors can lead to duplicate records or cause a match failure when searching a master patient index. 
  • Information gathered may vary between EHRs; for example, a patient may use a slight name variant during one visit and not use it for a future medical encounter. This could result in duplicate records with incongruent information.  
  • Students, transient workers, and migrants may have changing demographic information, resulting in data that doesn’t match between different EHR systems.  

Many healthcare facilities have attempted to use matching algorithms to help deduplicate health records and match patients to health data more effectively, but the results have been mixed at best, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.  

Duplicate records and false patient matches can have dire consequences. Treating a patient using a medical record that doesn’t belong to them is dangerous. Missing an allergy to certain medications, for instance, can be life-threatening. Misdiagnosis and prescription abuse are other serious issues that stem from treating the wrong patient.   

Medical facilities are also at risk of losing money due to denied claims from misidentified patients. A third of denied insurance claims resulted from patient misidentification, costing $1.5 million on average in 2017, according to Black Book research.  

Leveraging biometrics as a solution 

Unlike demographic information and identity documents, a face, fingerprint, iris, or voice is difficult to steal or use in a fraudulent way. These unique biometric identifiers can reliably ID patients and mitigate the risks of misidentification.  

Fingerprint, face, and voice are especially accessible modalities. Webcams, fingerprint sensors, and microphones are now ubiquitous technologies, and the systems needed to enroll, store, and search biometric data can be subscribed to as a cloud service.  

When a patient arrives for care, they provide biometric data that is then searched against existing records.  If a biometric match is found, the identity data associated with the record can be retrieved.  If no matches are found, the biometric data is enrolled and used as part of a search at future visits.   

Implementing biometric-based patient ID at scale 

Some countries in Asia and Africa are already exploring the use of biometrics in healthcare services, including Kenya, Ghana, Gabon, and India. Leaders in African nations are pursuing biometrics to create an absolute standard for patient identification that is more reliable than ID cards. Other promising benefits include a reduction in cases of fraud, fewer duplicate medical records, and the ability to identify unconscious patients, according to the World Bank Group.   

Biometric-based ID is also highly accurate and more accessible than ever. Mobile biometric technologies have achieved mainstream status, and so have cost-effective biometrics-as-a-service offerings like Aware’s Indigo that provide biometric enrollment and identification as a service using fingerprints and face through a browser-based interface 

For all of these reasons and more, biometrics proving to be a viable standard for patient identification, one that has great potential to improve patient safety and quality of care.