The Smart Way to Safer Hospitals

Contactless smart card technology has been used many years in other industries, and is now helping to solve some longstanding thorny issues in the healthcare sector: safeguarding patients and staff and protecting confidential patient information.

By Holly Sacks | Posted Jan 11, 2010
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Over the past few years, the healthcare sector has become increasingly dependent on information technology. Contactless smart card technology has been used many years in other industries, and is now helping to solve some longstanding thorny issues in the healthcare sector: safeguarding patients and staff and protecting confidential patient information.

Hospitals in Scandinavia were early adopters of this technology, and Germany has recently issued healthcare smart cards to its entire 80 million-strong population. In the UK, many hospitals are now waking up to the benefits of using contactless smart cards to control physical access to their buildings and logical access to the IT systems that house confidential patient data.

"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.”


Holly Sacks
HID Global

In the past, it was relatively easy for an intruder 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. It also helps healthcare professionals to demonstrate that they are storing and managing patient details in a safe and secure way to comply with the Data Protection Act.

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 this 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.

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