Hand raised for security

In 1996, William Beaumont Hospital, a 254-bed community hospital in Michigan, had a problem: A small number of rogue employees were taking narcotics from a storage area without authorization.

Security Director Chris Hengstebeck looked for ways to tighten control to the affected rooms and cabinets and to generate a log of employees accessing them. The hospital's provider of control access methods suggested a biometric hand geometry system, which identifies individuals through hand measurements.

It worked. The hospital now has about 40 hand readers that control access not only to narcotics but also to the maternity ward and other sensitive areas. Hundreds of employees use the system. To enter one of these restricted areas, employees must punch in their unique ID number and then have a hand scanned.

"We recognized that there was a problem with ID cards and passwords being ­stolen," Hengstebeck said during a presentation at the Winter 2006 Biometrics Summit in Miami. "We didn't have true accountability of what was going on."

The hospital later added a biometric fingerprint reader linked to the cabinets holding narcotics to further control access. Hengstebeck declined to name the vendors of these technologies, citing hospital policy, but said they are easy to use.

Other benefits of the system include aiding investigations by linking the biometric readers with security cameras. And the security department can override the access control system when needed in emergencies. The downside? Hand geometry readers, at about US$1,800 each, cost eight times more than conventional card readers.

Still, the bustling hospital, which has 2,800 employees and an emergency room that served 60,000 patients last year, plans to use the hand and fingerprint readers in areas of its US$493 million expansion. "The primary advantage of hand geometry over anything else is that it's inextricably linked to the user," Hengstebeck says.

Dana Marohn, a consultant with International Biometric Group in Washington, D.C., says that hand geometry systems are an expensive option for access control that nonetheless offer a higher degree of security than PINs or tokens--which makes them valuable in a hospital setting.

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