Smart way to Safer Hospitals

Contactless smart card technology has been used for many years in other industries, and is now helping to solve some longstanding thorny issues in the healthcare sector as well

By Holly Sacks

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 longstanding thorny issues in the healthcare sector as well like safeguarding patients and staff and protecting confidential patient information.

Germany has recently issued healthcare smart cards to its entire 80 million 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.

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 just 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. 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. 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 nobrainer. 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.

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.