Electronic health records (EHR) are one of the key mandates of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). These systems offer many distinct advantages, such as making it easier for healthcare professionals to share data about a patient in order to improve diagnosis and treatment decisions. One enormous problem, however, is that the patient must be identified correctly in the first place. Social Security Numbers (SSNs) are commonly used as patient IDs, but they are notoriously unreliable. A study in 2010 revealed that 6% of U.S. residents have two or more SSNs associated with their names. And a whopping 40 million SSNs are associated with more than one individual.

As a result, as many as 10% of all hospital patients are misidentified in one way or another. Hospitals and other healthcare institutions have a strong need for accurate patient identification. Not only is this essential for accurate diagnosis and treatment, mistaken identities have other costs. Insurance companies won’t pay claims if the patient information does not match their records. And it takes lots of expensive staff labor to research and clean up duplicate patient records and other errors at a cost of up to $1,000 per record. These details and more are included in a white paper from Imprivata, a company that has a novel approach to patient identification.

Imprivata has a system that relies on infra-red scans of the patient’s palm. This records the pattern of veins in the hand, which is unique to each individual and is extremely difficult to duplicate. (And while the details are a little gory, you can’t use a hand that has been separated from the individual, as the system requires active blood flow.) Once the palm print has been associated with the patient’s records, providing date of birth and a quick scan is all that’s needed to accurately identify the person.

Biometric solutions like this have saved healthcare services millions of dollars. Biometrics have their limitations, but in general they can make EHR systems far more accurate and reliable. The end result can be lower healthcare costs, greater efficiency, and better outcomes for patients.