Practice of using biometric technology to ID patients raises concerns

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Biometric technology, such as palm or iris scanning, is being used by hospitals such as Escondido, Calif.-based Palomar Medical Center to identify patients--but not everyone is convinced it is safe. In a commentary published this week in the New York Times, reporter Natasha Singer took issue with New York University Langone Medical Center's practice of palm scanning and photographs to protect against identity theft.

Singer's primary beef is that the hospital doesn't make it clear to patients that the scans are optional. However, she also cited two examples of data breaches at the hospital--the theft of a desktop computer from earlier this year and the loss of an unencrypted USB drive in 2010--to make a case against storing such information electronically. Singer implied that she was uncomfortable with the hospital using such data, mentioning at the end of the piece that the hospitals had deleted her palm print at her request.

Ben Kanter, chief medical information officer at Palomar, told FierceHealthIT in August, though, that the use of such technology also helps to guard against the "real and serious problem [of] patients being registered and presenting with different names" at the same facility.

"It can be very difficult [when a patient uses different names at different visits], and if we don't have access to the right records at the right time, first of all it's very inefficient, and secondly, we could actually hurt somebody," he said.

With such innovative technologies in mind, the Government Accountability Office in August published a statement saying data privacy protection laws must be updated as the technology landscape continues to shift.

"Ensuring the privacy and security of personal information collected by the federal government remains a challenge, particularly in light of the increasing dependence on networked information systems that can store, process and transfer vast amounts of data," GAO Director of Information Security Issues Gregory C. Wilshusen wrote.

To learn more:
- read the Times commentary

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Fierce Q&A: Ben Kanter, Orlando Portale on Palomar's IT makeover
GAO: Data privacy protection must keep up with technology
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