In the world of healthcare security, the threats are ever-evolving with hospitals and healthcare facilities facing a unique set of challenges that demand innovative solutions and dedicated leadership. From safeguarding patient privacy to defending against physical threats, the importance of a robust security strategy in a healthcare environment is paramount.

One of the major challenges faced by healthcare facilities is how to maintain a balance of security while remaining open to the public. Here, security leaders discuss some strategies for healthcare security professionals to keep in mind in order to maintain security while also having an inviting and open environment.

“Hospitals have many doors that are open to the public — there's the main entrance, the emergency room entrance, an entrance going into a lab, etc… — and that causes issues for security and the ability to make the environment safe,” says Ken Harr, Assistant Vice President and Chief Security Officer at Ballad Health. 

In his role at Ballad Health, Harr oversees all 21 hospitals, along with six long-term care facilities, six retail pharmacies, 17 urgent cares, and nearly 290 office buildings.

In addition to securing entrances, Harr says hospitals and healthcare facilities have to comply with various regulations such as U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regulations.

“It all combines to create a very unique challenge for healthcare facilities,” Harr says.

A game changer

The year 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic brought many new challenges to security professionals and has reshaped how many governments, organizations, and individuals do business. In the healthcare industry, facilities encountered a range of security challenges including an increased risk of violence stemming from fear and frustration, increased risk of thefts, as well as adapting to rapidly evolving regulatory changes and public health guidelines.

At McLeod Health, Director of Security Wayne Byrd says COVID-19 was a “game changer.”

“Before COVID, the saying is we were kind of the shopping mall model with all the doors open and anybody could come and go almost 24/7,” Byrd says. “Then when COVID hit there were all the restrictions and for period, no visitations allowed.”

Even prior to 2020, Byrd was reviewing ways to reduce ongoing issues related to transient foot traffic at a McLeod campus in Florence. The facility is adjacent to an Amtrack station and in an area near downtown and residential neighborhoods. On occasion people would come into the facility to charge their phones or just as a place to hang out until moving on to their next destination. This was an issue from a security standpoint because the individuals were not there to receive treatment from the hospital or to visit someone being treated, were utilizing services intended for use by patients and visitors, and opened the opportunity for disturbances to occur.

“As you can imagine, some of that transient crowd would look for opportunities to create crimes or disturbances,” Byrd says. “For example, some visitor goes to the vending machine and leaves their pocketbook by their chair and when they come back their pocketbook is gone. That was the sort of thing we were looking at before we reduced the number of entrances down.”

The pandemic provided an opportunity to restructure the security strategy at the facilities going from about 50 doors available where people could get into the building, to now five, Byrd says. As Corporate Director of Security at McLeod Health, Byrd is responsible for eight campuses across northeastern South Carolina.

“That's really helped us from a security perspective to keep track of who's coming and going in the buildings,” he adds. “That's kind of the new normal and really allowed us to show leadership what issues that open access dynamic was causing at ground level. There’s a fine line between a free and open campus versus one where we welcome families and visitors in the building. You don't want people who are in the building for the wrong purpose.”

Training is key

As many security leaders in the industry know, training is a key component for a successful comprehensive security strategy.

“Training and education are paramount for maintaining secure environments, especially in healthcare facilities,” Harr says.

In addition to comprehensive training during employee on boarding, healthcare facilities should be sure to also provide ongoing training for staff. Harr says this helps ensure everyone is up to date on current policies and procedures on how to respond to certain circumstances such as active shooter or other emergency situation.

Maintaining a safe and secure environment depends on the cooperation of everyone in the healthcare facility including security teams, hospital staff and patient services. 

“We also promote a culture of safety, open communications, and reporting to security,” Harr says. “We want them to have open communication with security systems to let us know what's going on. Security can’t be everywhere at once, whether it's cameras or officers in the building. So, we try to promote the ‘see something say something’ mentality so that we can get all the information.”

“They all have to work in balance,” Byrd agrees.

When it comes to creating a successful security strategy in a healthcare setting, it is important for security leaders to also consider the image they want to project to facility visitors.

“I think it is important to consider the image that you give off,” says Byrd. “We try to follow a 5/10 rule here at McLeod. So if one of our security guards are 10 feet away from someone, they should be trying to make eye contact with them. And within five feet they should be greeting them with a smile. ‘How are you? Welcome to McLeod’ or some sort of friendly greeting. And that kind of breaks the ice and we hope it does make the facility feel a little more inviting. We're not at the door to just try to keep people out, we're there to welcome you in a good first impression.”

“We're not law enforcement and we're not here to arrest everybody, we’re here to be sure our patients and visitors can get in and out of the building and that they're safe while they're here. We do a lot of training with our guest services and our service excellence team at McLeod because a lot of times our guys are the first contact that many people have with the hospital. So, we want that to be a positive experience.”

Hospitals and healthcare facilities face unique challenges with threats that are constantly evolving. With strong and dedicated leadership, security professionals can defend against physical threats with a robust security strategy.