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Safer Healthcare

by msecadm4921

The smart way to safer hospitals; by Holly Sacks, Senior VP, Marketing and Corporate Strategy at access control product manufacturer HID Global.

Over the past few years, the healthcare sector has become increasingly dependent on information technology. Contactless smart card technology has been used for many years in other industries, and is now helping to solve some long-standing thorny issues in the healthcare sector: safeguarding patients and staff and protecting confidential patient records while increasing the efficiency of administration.

In the UK, many hospitals are now waking up to the benefits of using contactless smart cards to control logical access to IT systems that house confidential patient data, and physical access to buildings. Hospitals in Scandinavia were early adopters of this technology, and Germany is currently in the early stages of adopting a new healthcare smart card system. The impending German healthcard system is considered to be pioneering because it focuses on improving the management of patient data and administrative workflows. The system will allow doctors and pharmacists to access important sensitive patient data securely and efficiently through a card carried by the patient. This card gives medical personnel easy access to patient data, from blood group information through to X-ray results. Without patient’s permission by handing out the healthcard, confidential patient data, which is centrally stored by independent service providers, stays encrypted and cannot be accessed by any authority.

But while the healthcard system in Germany is being driven by a need to provide better management of patient data, there is also a strong imperative to secure the physical security in the healthcare sector as well. In the past, it was relatively easy for anyone to walk unchallenged around a hospital, accessing areas meant only for authorised staff. In rare cases, this led to security breaches where babies were removed from paediatric wards. Contactless smart cards are addressing this physical access problem by using encryption to offer differing levels of building access to certain staff. For example, a cardio-thoracic surgeon would require access to the operating theatre, while a registrar might need access to all the wards in the hospital.

Medical professionals can also use their smart card to access sensitive patient data on a network. So as well as safeguarding the security of patients’ personal information, using a smart card for logical access can also create efficiencies in terms of time. If a doctor can access crucial IT systems with just a smart card, this saves on time wasted in remembering and entering usernames and passwords and frees up more time for patient care.

Smart cards can come in contact or contactless form, and can offer three levels of security: single, dual or three-factor authentication. With single-factor authentication, using the card on its own will give access to a system or open a door. Dual-factor authentication – the most common level of smart card authentication in UK hospitals – adds on an extra level of security in the form of a PIN code. Three-factor authentication goes a step further, using a PIN and an extra security measure such as a biometric scan. Contactless smart cards are traditionally used for physical access control and are now being adopted for logical access control as well.

One surprising area where contactless technology is making an impact is infection control – a topic that is never far from the headlines. We’ve all seen the bottles of antibacterial hand gel that now stand at the doorway to every hospital ward, and no one can have missed the government swine flu posters that landed on every doormat across the country. Just think about a doctor on her morning ward round. In just a few hours, a doctor could see as many as 20 patients on five different wards, accessing different areas of the hospital and different computer systems as she goes. With this many potential touch points, it’s easy to see how infection can be spread. Contactless smart cards – where the card is passed in front of a reader device – are playing a key role in limiting this spread of infection. After all, if your pass card never touches the reader, it can’t spread germs.

With this many advantages, adopting contactless smart technology seems like a no-brainer. But some hospitals are still using the most basic form of secure access control: the magnetic stripe – or ‘mag-stripe’ – card, where magnetic data is stored on the back of the card.

While mag-stripe cards are cheap to produce, they can end up more expensive in terms of maintenance. Magnetic stripe cards come in contact with the reader when inserted, and any debris that collects on the card inevitably ends up inside the reader and on its contact pins. They are also susceptible to magnetic interference and wear and tear: constant swiping through the card reader causes the stripe to deteriorate and eventually fail. This type of card is also very restricted in terms of its data storage capacity compared to that of smart cards, some of which now have up to 164K of memory.

But perhaps their biggest disadvantage is that they are very easy to clone. You can even buy a mag-stripe reader from a high-street store that will let you take data off one of these cards and use it to create an unlimited number of clones.

It’s fair to say that the cost of upgrading to contactless smart cards can be a barrier to deployment for some hospitals, where funding priorities can mean that management has to choose between upgrading physical and logical access systems and having another 30 patient beds. On the other hand, is it really possible to put a price on effective infection control or security in a maternity ward?

When you weigh up the costs of contactless smart card technology against the benefits, it can offer outstanding value to the healthcare sector, saving time and money, protecting patients and staff and safeguarding their personal data. Portable and secure, contactless smart cards are fast becoming a valuable tool for safeguarding physical security and guaranteeing the privacy of sensitive electronic information.

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