Biometrics: Three tips for success

How one CTO got hospital staff onboard a new system

Biometric security systems can, at first glance, seem futuristic. In some minds, they are still the stuff of science fiction. Biometrics are often criticized as being expensive and impractical in many business settings. But at Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick, Maine, Chief Technology Officer Bill McQuaid can't stop crowing about the success he has seen with the facility's biometric system (See also: Biometrics: Security is in the Employees' Hands).

"When we were first going to do this, I was concerned it would be more of a hassle than a convenience," says McQuaid "But it really has ended up being a win-win. It's a security tool and it's a marketing tool for me."

Four years ago, McQuaid streamlined all of the hospital's clinical applications into one vendor. The goal was for nursing documentation, emergency room applications, operating room applications, physician order entry, and bedside medication verification to be accessible through one system. But he also wanted access to those applications to be easy and seamless (See also: Biometric Access Control).

"I wanted doctors and nurses to just stick their finger on these screens and have no sign in," says McQuaid. "They don't have to worry about a password or jumping from computer to computer."

So, after much research, McQuaid decided to implement a single-sign-on, biometric reader system from Imprivata. The system allows users, such as nursing staff and doctors, to use their fingerprints to gain access to their profile and applications from anywhere in the clinical areas. McQuaid says in addition to ease of use, the system also provides security features such as automatic log-off if the user steps away from the screen for too long. The security of the system addresses many HIPAA compliance issues. It has also cut down on patient medication errors.

Mindful of the common criticisms of biometric systems, McQuaid went into the project with a plan to make it foolproof before going live. He said three steps were crucial to make the system easy and effective for everyone.

Test, test, test

Concerned about false positives and other problems with the readers, McQuaid knew that testing extensively was the only way to ensure the system would be working well from the start. Before the readers were rolled out to staff, they had been tested for weeks to make sure they were easy to use and ready to be implemented. This boosted the system's success rate with users, whom McQuaid knows are deeply affected by first impressions.

"I imagined every way to break it," says McQuaid. "You only get one chance with physicians and nurses. They way they see it the first time is kind of what it is."

Train extensively

The second step McQuaid recommends is to have a comprehensive training program for a biometric-based system. At Parkview, even per-diem workers are given detailed instructions on the system during training.

"Every time there is an orientation, we go in and work with them to make sure its done right," he says. "If you do it right the first time, it will save you a ton of calls on the back end."

Plan for backup

The last thing McQuaid suggests before implementing biometrics is a strong backup plan. Every employee has several fingers scanned so that several can be used in case one finger is cut or not being read properly. As a last resort, the system is password enabled, so a staffer can enter the password if the bio reader fails to respond.

While the system isn't being used throughout the entire facility yet, the plan is to roll it out in other areas, like labs and the operating room, in the very near future.

This story, "Biometrics: Three tips for success" was originally published by CSO.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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