Hospital tests 'ATM' for health records

A tool that scans the veins in your hand will find your electronic health records, and they'll follow you around the hospital.

By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, senior editor

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SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- First, there were actual human bank tellers and the agonizing ritual of standing in line to withdraw enough money for a burger and a movie. Then came ATM's, and they were good.

Next, there was chewing your fingernails at the airport as a slow-moving family with eight bags tried to finagle a way onto an earlier flight. And then we got Web check-in and a slew of on-site terminals.

Now, if only someone would do something about the god-awful procedure of checking into a hospital.

Enter Springfield Clinic. "We've been doing patient satisfaction surveys for the last three years," says Jim Hewett, CIO of the 195-physician medical treatment center, which serves 14 counties in Illinois. "One of the areas we were getting dinged on is the check-in process: long lines, inconsistency, asking the same questions over and over again. So we decided to create a more engaging experience for the patient."

To address that epidemic, this week Springfield Clinic is taking the wraps off 50 automated kiosks that the company plans to deploy across its 24 clinics. Built by healthcare information technology company Allscripts (MDRX), the terminals are networked into a central database holding patients' electronic healthcare records (EHR) and feature a camera, credit card reader, a printer, and a very cool biometric device called Palm Secure, designed by Fujitsu, which maps the veins in a patient's palm.

Far more accurate than a fingerprint reader, and less weird than an iris scan, the device has a false acceptance ratio of 0.00008 percent¬which is hugely important when dealing with something as sensitive as health records in a public setting.

"Palm Secure takes a picture not of your hand, but of the vein patterns in the palm. That's important because it's virtually impossible to replicate," says Joshua Napua, vice president of the healthcare solutions group at Fujitsu Computer Products of America.

A patient sets up a user profile in an initial visit by posing for a photo, establishing a palm scan, and answering a number of basic questions. Once that's out of the way, the patient registers in subsequent visits by merely putting a hand on the screen. No more telling six different people when you were born, or how you hurt your back while snowboarding in fresh powder.

The kiosk uploads your data automatically, charges your co-pay automatically, and your session log follows you around the hospital for every nurse and doctor to see.

One primary goal of installing the kiosks is to increase customer loyalty by smoothing the entire hospital experience. But there are real benefits for the clinic, too. Harried receptions don't just keep patients waiting, they also increase the likelihood of errors, and have a tendency to forget to ask certain questions or omit important details. All of which diminishes a hospital's ability to collect payment from finicky insurance companies. "We aren't consistently asking the same questions and that means rejected claims on the back end," says Springfield's Hewitt.

In the clinic's beta tests, the machines have not only collect standardized information better than humans, they've also persuaded patients to correct outdated data in a way that they're not generally inclined to do. Hewitt thinks that's a testament to giving patients the ability to see their entire record.

"For every patient that uses the kiosk, they change three pieces of information," he says. "They'll say, my cell phone really is X, and my emergency contacts are really Y."

Allscripts sells the kiosks, which are being introduced at a healthcare technology trade show in Chicago this week, for $17,000 each, including installation and integration. President Obama has made the implementation of electronic health records a priority of his economic stimulus plan, and if Hewett is any guide, these terminals will take off as quickly as ATM's and airport check-in terminals.

"We started by saying 'Is there something unique we could do to bring your EHR (electronic healthcare records), personal health information, and the registration system together and let the patient have control,'" he says.

"It's awesome to see people's faces when they use it for the first time. All their information is right there on the kiosk."  To top of page

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