July 25, 2017 Bob Werber

Hand Over Your Credentials

How your palm may solve the medical identity crisis and more.

Biometric scanners can identify you in a heartbeat by recognizing your face, the size of your iris or the geometry of your ear, and do it far more accurately than any signature or picture ID card.

In fact, biometrics can isolate your identity by scanning all sorts of your body parts. But today, it seems likely that the palm of your hand will soon be your #1 biometric calling card. Why? Because America’s massive healthcare industry is pushing hard to speed up its adoption.

Health Data Crisis

Hospitals across the U.S. are struggling with a very big problem: How to consistently identify individuals and match them to the right health records, and do so securely. Medical identity theft is a far bigger issue than most of us realize. The healthcare industry estimates that it is already costing U.S. consumers over $30 billion per year. And problems matching patients to their correct health records are causing mix-ups that contribute to serious treatment errors.

A big reason is the way your health records are collected. You know all the forms you’ve filled out in medical waiting rooms? Over the years, that information, plus all the notes doctors and other health personnel have fed into computers and iPads about you have gradually become your digital health “profile.” The trouble is, it’s scattered across so many databases that don’t necessarily talk to each other (ie, doctor’s offices, hospitals, insurance companies) that it can be almost impossible to access in one, coherent piece. Your profile is also likely to contain mistakes made by all the people who’ve keyed in your information in various offices. As a result, there’s a real possibility that in an emergency, a doctor won’t be able to get key information about your health background, or even confirm which health records are truly yours.

Medical Identity Theft Grows

Problems with electronic health records, or “EHRs” have evolved into a kind of perfect storm in the U.S. healthcare industry. The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) estimates that 10 – 12% of all EHRs are now duplicates, and warns that incomplete or inaccurate information in them is regularly causing medical errors. Data security problems have also exploded. The patchwork of databases where EHRs are stored is proving an easy target for hackers, partly because login privileges are now being widely distributed to patients who want to view their test results and other health information on hospital websites. In 2014, about 2.3 million Americans were victims of medical identity theft, according to The Medical Identity Theft Alliance, with each victim being hit with an average of $13,450 in out-of-pocket expenses.

Hospitals across the U.S. are fighting back by testing biometric tools to match patients to the right medical records and keep hackers out. Among the many biometric markers being tried, “palm vein recognition” seems to be emerging as the strongest option.

You may not realize it, but the palms of your hands each contain a vein pattern that’s totally unique and will never change during your life. Once that pattern has been digitally recorded by a scanner using “near-infrared light,” it can be used to identify you anywhere, even if you are unconscious in a hospital. And when that pattern is matched to your EHR, any health provider who is treating you can call up your medical history on a computer or mobile device and be confident that they’re reading about you.

Palm vein scanning offers several technical advantages. It avoids the problems of fingerprints, for example, which are notoriously unreliable in the winter when dry air can affect the skin. And a palm scan is extremely difficult to forge, because it exists underneath the skin. The accuracy of palm scans is also unaffected by external burns, injuries or other skin problems.

Comfort Zone

The main reason palm scans will probably become standard identification, however, is simple: People just like them more than other types of ID. Healthcare centers report that patients often won’t give fingerprints because they associate them with law enforcement. Besides being made to “feel like a criminal,” they fear that “big brother” will somehow get too much information about them from their fingerprint. Others refuse to be photographed, because they feel they don’t look good during a health event. That poses a problem for a hospital is using iris scanning, which requires a patient photo to identify the iris. (Iris scanning can also pose problems if the patient is unconscious. It can be difficult to keep an eye open long enough for a good scan).

By contrast, a palm scan simply requires the patient to hold one hand over a scanner briefly. It’s not even necessary to touch the scanner. Companies that produce vein scanners call them “hygienic, non-intrusive and stigma free.” The first time a scan is taken of your hand, it’s encrypted and stored. Then, any time you visit another health facility, you simply put your hand under a scanner and give your birthdate, and the medical staff can access a health record and know it’s actually yours. The system eliminates mix-ups, and it also makes it tough for hackers to access your background information without a palm scan.

Palm vein scanners have already been widely used in consumer banking in Japan for a decade. The initial positive response to them by patients at U.S. hospitals makes it more likely that the next time you have to show your ID at a doctor’s office or anywhere else, you’ll do so by simply holding out your hand.

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