Excluding the pandemic years, visiting policies at healthcare facilities have become more lenient over the past two decades. A study sponsored by the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety (IAHSS) found that “open” or “unrestricted” visitation is associated with higher patient and family satisfaction with care, improved outcomes, better communication with healthcare providers, and reduced anxiety over treatment.

With visitors coming and going 24/7, all of whom must — for now — be screened for COVID-19 symptoms each time they enter, the need for effective and efficient visitor management strategies has never been greater. Administrators must balance policies that ensure unauthorized and unhealthy people cannot enter secure areas, including patient wards, with procedures that create a welcoming visitor experience.

According to the same IAHSS study, one-third of surveyed facilities reported using electronic visitor management systems; another third planned to introduce the technology in the near future. Electronic solutions remove much of the burden otherwise placed on professional staff to “buzz in” visitors and pay attention to their status as they move about the building. Bar-coded badges, read by access control readers throughout a facility, ensure that visitors only enter floors, wings, or wards where they have been granted permission.

How visitor management can boost security and visitor experience

Electronic visitor management systems improve the credentialing process and harden security, but they do not necessarily enhance the visitor experience. Upon entering the facility, patients' friends and family must still wait in line at a security desk where they undergo COVID screening, identify which patient they are visiting, and present photo ID to a security officer. Only then, after having their name checked against a list of prohibited visitors, does the officer issue a badge. Because badges can be stolen or shared, returning visitors must repeat the process each time they enter the building.

Integrating biometrics with visitor management systems can improve the visitor experience by automating identity verification. Rather than wait in line at a security desk, visitors head directly to a self-serve kiosk. There, they place their driver’s license or photo ID on a scanner while a camera with AI-driven facial recognition matches them to their photo. The process is similar to automated traveler screening at international border crossings.

At the kiosk, visitors also complete a short questionnaire on a touchscreen, get their temperature taken, and have their name cross-checked against a list of prohibited visitors. If no red flags occur, they proceed to a counter where they quickly receive a badge.

Visitors can pre-register for their pass from a phone or computer before arrival to speed up the process. People on a list of expected visitors, as provided by patients, receive a link to a visitor registration portal via email or text. Online, they perform the same steps as at the onsite kiosk, answering a questionnaire, uploading an image of their photo ID, and a selfie of their face. Administrators review each submission.

Upon arrival, pre-approved visitors can present their face at a kiosk, have their temperature taken, and their badge is printed. Biometrics make this possible. Because faces or other biometric signatures cannot be shared, lost or stolen, the technology verifies each visitor’s identity without a man-in-the-loop. Returning visitors previously enrolled in the system experience the same expedited treatment.

Where to implement biometrics in healthcare settings

For healthcare facilities looking to test the waters before implementing biometrics on a larger scale, certain departments are the place to start. These include labor and delivery, psychiatry, detox, and memory impairment units, where security protocols are often geared to keep certain patients in and unauthorized visitors out. Biometric readers placed at department entrances and exits provide much tighter access control without infringing on visitors’ ability to come and go.

In maternity wards, registering the biometrics of the mother and partner at the time of admission simplifies the ability of the partner to leave and return to the secure ward. It can also serve as a safeguard during discharge to ensure that a newborn is with the correct parent or guardian. Identity verification of the adult is particularly critical if the baby is ready to go home before mom.

In facilities or departments where patients are involuntarily committed, biometric access control is a secure method for keeping residents contained. There are no cards or badges that can be appropriated by patients. Outsiders enrolled in the biometric database can freely visit. The biometric reader at the doorway logs who comes and goes.

Biometrics in healthcare security

Several biometric modalities work in the above examples; fingerprints, palm veins, faces, and irises are all possibilities. However, the iris offers some advantages in healthcare settings. The readers are touchless and can identify subjects with masks on — a consideration that now pertains to visitors as much as the medical staff. Also, if used in conjunction with facial systems, which can help when matching visitors to their photo ID, iris enrollment can occur simultaneously.

Biometrics identity solutions are not new to healthcare. They're widely deployed at patient registration desks because of their speed, ease of use and accuracy. Access control and visitor management are the next frontier. For the same reasons biometrics improve the patient care experience, the technology will soon enhance the visitor experience, allowing people to spend the maximum time with their loved ones instead of waiting in line at security.