Regulating EHR Biometrics

Health lists the following benefits to using the electronic health record (EHR) over paper records:

  • improve quality and convenience of patient care
  • increase patient participation in their care
  • improve accuracy of diagnoses and health outcomes
  • improve care coordination
  • increase practice efficiencies and cost savings

How it Began
The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which is a component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, represents the Nation’s first substantial commitment of Federal resources to support the widespread adoption of EHRs. The ultimate goal of HITECH was to promote the meaningful use of patient information across healthcare providers.1

Financial Incentives
A part of the HITECH initiative was to provide financial incentives to providers for the purpose of embracing meaningful use of patient records. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 authorizes the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to provide incentive payments to eligible professionals and hospitals who adopt, implement, upgrade or demonstrate meaningful use of certified EHR technology. The program was fairly successful in that by August 2012, 54% of the Medicare- and Medicaid-eligible professionals had registered for the meaningful use incentive program.2

Regulating EHR BiometricsTechnology Boost
In addition to the rapidly evolving medical interventions, plant earth has been radically transformed by digital technology, including but not limited to smart phones’ web-enabled devices. This technology burst has transformed the healthcare profession and the very way practitioners communicate with each other.

Healthcare is an information-rich activity. So the need for greater and a more seamless flow of data within and across infrastructures via the EHR provides practitioners with information whenever and wherever they need it. The ongoing electronics evolution of devices is making that possible.

Confidentiality Concerns
Due to the rise of cyber attacks, ensuring the confidentiality of patient records has become an important concern as more and more technology is embraced by healthcare entities. There is a consistent rise of healthcare professionals documenting, editing and viewing patient records using their personal smart phones and laptops than ever before.

Protecting the patient’s confidentiality, as required by accreditation, certification and federal government agencies by the use of secure electronic authentication methods is critical. One such authentication method being considered and installed on work and personal devices is biometric-based security. In fact, biometric software, due to the individual user characteristics it requires is gaining in popularity.

Biometrics: What is it?
In order to gain access to patient information via electronics, hospitals and other healthcare entities are installing biometric software on practitioners’ devices. This software requires the user to provide individual personal characteristics such as, digitized fingerprints, iris scans, hand palm geometry and speaker/voice recognition in order to gain access to confidential information.

Biometric authentication offers advantages over security methods including keys, cards, passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs). In addition, biometrics stores an institution in the computerized systems and can’t be forgotten — such as a PIN, or lost — such as an access card.

Because of the speed, efficiency and convenience, biometric authentication software is gaining as a popular tool of choice for access and control within healthcare institutions.

From Million to Billion Dollar Industry
A recent CNN article states that “David Tong, a senior analyst at SRI Consulting, estimates that the biometrics market is already worth roughly $250 million.”3 At the time the article was penned — which was in 1998 — biometrics enjoyed a lucrative life in the areas of financial services and security/law enforcement due to the concern of prevents financial fraud or identifies thefts. However, the popularity of this software and its flexibility has grown and it can easily be considered a $9 billion industry today.

A study conducted by the AC group reports, “by creating a community based HER utilizing one unified patient identifier, the clinical and operational savings could exceed $148 billion per year.”4

With Good Comes the Bad
Healthcare organizations across the country are employing various types of biometric inventions to try and curtain confidentiality breaches. The biometrics industry reports that the technology can add efficiencies to the healthcare system by reduce confidentiality breaches, medical errors, record keeping costs and identity theft or financial fraud. It is believed that as EHRs become more commonly used, biometric software will be utilized as an authentication mechanism by healthcare institutions, payers/ insurers and oversight regulatory agencies.

All this sounds too good right? But with the pros always comes the cons. Not everyone has jumped on board to embrace biometrics. In fact, this software is controversial.

Many fear that the government could use biometrics to track and monitor citizens. This concern relates to invasion of privacy and informational security, In addition, some citizens complain about loss of the ability to control healthcare and sensitive medical information (family history) about them. Others believe that biometrics could become stigmatizing. Lastly, there are some citizens that have voiced religious objections to biometrics.3

The controversial concerns of utilizing biometric software for patient records identified by Carolyn P. Harley and Stanley Nachimson in their 2007 article titled “Biometrics Coming of Age” have a long life and are still voiced 8 years later. The risks the authors cited included: equipment costs (i.e., hardware and software); patient reaction, due to privacy concerns; staff resistance; and usability (inappropriateness of use for all patients). Even with the electronics evolution and the increase level of comfort with technology, ironically these same risks are voiced by potential users 8 years following this publication.5

The global market for various biometric technologies within the healthcare arena is positioned for significant growth over the next decade. Industry experts believe that the biometrics industry is expected to reach a worth of nearly $12 billion by the year 2015. The healthcare component of this industry, particularly in the areas of patient data will surely claim a large percentage of the growth pattern.5

Eleanor Wolfram is a certified QA&C auditor.


  1. Health IT. Benefits of electronic health records. Available at:
  2. Medicare & Medicaid Incentive Program. EHR Incentive Programs. Available at:
  3. The Red Herring. Big Brother Biometrics. Available at:
  4. Anderson MR. Medical Legal EHRs: How Biometrics Helps EHRs Meet the Medico legal Requirements: White Paper., AC Group. Aug. 14, 2008.
  5. Hartley CP, Nachimson S. Biometrics Coming of Age. Available at:

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