Comment: The smart way to safer hospitals

Smart cards can help reduce the risk of infections in hospitals.
Smart cards can help reduce the risk of infections in hospitals.

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.

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 mart 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.

Infection control

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.

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.

Magnetic stripe cards wear out

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.

The cost aspect

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.

HID Global is exhibiting at Infosecurity Europe 2010 on 27-29 April, 2010 in Earl’s Court, London. The event provides a free education programme, exhibitors showcasing new and emerging technologies and offering practical and professional expertise. For further information please visit



HID Global is the trusted source for secure identity solutions for millions of customers around the world. Recognised for robust quality, innovative designs and industry leadership, HID Global is the supplier of choice for OEMs, system integrators, and application developers serving a variety of markets, including physical and logical access control, card personalization, eGovernment, cashless payment and industry and logistics.

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