Fingerprint scanners help improve record security

The emergency department can be an especially difficult place to balance the need for security of patient records with easy access for physicians and staff, but one hospital in Chesterfield, MO, is finding that a high-tech solution can do the job.

Sisters of Mercy Health System began testing fingerprint readers in the emergency department of its St. Louis facility last July and reports good results. The system now has about 40 devices in its emergency department and another 40 in administrative offices.

The emergency department had a particular need for such high-tech solutions because it is common for several people to share the same computer terminal, explains Michael Gutsche, director of security and disaster recovery for Sisters of Mercy. It was too time-consuming for each person to log on and log off each time he or she needed to access a patient record, he says, and patient privacy demands that the records not be accessible without some sort of access control. Leaving the system logged in all the time for quick access to the records risked violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act he notes.

Sisters of Mercy chose a system that uses fingerprint scanners and identification badges that can automatically unlock a computer when the authorized user approaches. The system was made by Sentillion in Andover, MA. Each person authorized to use the computer terminal wears a special "proximity" badge that looks similar to any other plastic identification badge. When the user approaches within a few feet of the terminal, the computer automatically unlock. The user verifies his or her identity by placing a finger in a small reader.

"In effect, the proximity badge is the log-in and the fingerprint is the password," Gutsche says. "I walk up, put my fingerprint down, and in just a few seconds I'm working on the document I need."

When the user is finished, he or she can just get up and leave. The system senses that the person no longer is at the computer and immediately logs out of the system. An extra bonus is that the next time the user sits down at the terminal, the computer will automatically open the files left open when the doctor last left.

The new system also helped the hospital achieve "single sign-on" for the key computer system in the emergency department, Gutsche says. Single sign-on is the elimination of multiple systems that require users to keep track of many different log-ins and passwords — a goal of many health care systems, Gutsche says.

"The system we settled on provided speed and ease of use, while at the same time improving security," Gutsche says. "When you make a security system easy to use, you greatly improve compliance because if a system is too complicated or requires too much effort, users will come up with their own workarounds that usually are not a good idea."

Sisters of Mercy won't reveal how much it spent on the system, but spokeswoman Julie Yeager says, "We anticipate a cost savings for the system due to time efficiencies which directly impact patient care by increasing caregivers' time at the bedside."


For more information on the Sisters of Mercy fingerprint scanner system, contact:

  • Michael Gutsche, Director of Security and Disaster Recovery, Sisters of Mercy Health System, 14528 S. Outer Forty, Suite 100, Chesterfield, MO 63017. Telephone: (314) 579-6100.
  • Sentillion, 40 Shattuck Road, Suite 200, Andover, MA 01810. Telephone: (978) 689-9095. E-mail: Web: