Securing Mobile Medical Equipment with Electronic Access

November 22, 2016 Rachel Pilgren-Kane

Intelligent electronic locks offer a unique and efficient way to control access and maintain security of valuable information and medical supplies.

Steve Spatig, General Manager, Electronic Access Solutions, Southco, Inc.

In modern medical practice, efficiency is key. Newer technologies allow for mobility of medical equipment, allowing personnel to bring medical supplies and machines closer to patients, whether they are in the emergency room or an emergency vehicle. However, with this improved accessibility, how can hospitals and healthcare facilities ensure that valuable medical equipment and narcotics are properly secured?

When using mobile medical equipment, making patient care supplies available when needed while protecting them against unauthorized access is a challenge that hospital administrators face on a daily basis. Pharmaceuticals, biologics and other valuable or hazardous medical materials stored within mobile carts and cabinets must be locked away when not in use to prevent theft, or idle or malicious tampering.

In addition, privacy concerns and increasing enforcement of Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations dictate that patient information, such as electronic medical records must also be accessible only to legitimate users. Finding a practical way to secure these items is imperative. Engineers designing for the medical environment, from hospital rooms to ambulances, are equally aware of this challenge.

Intelligent electronic locking mechanisms

Integrating intelligent electronic locking mechanisms into mobile medical equipment, such as medication dispensing carts can significantly improve both security and accountability within the healthcare setting. Concealed electronic locks and latches, when combined with access control devices such as digital keypads or RFID devices, provide an effective solution for upgrading the security of existing carts, cabinets and workstations.

Successful electronic access systems comprise four basic elements: an access control device, an electronic lock, remote monitoring and manual override. Consistent operation is dependent upon a high-quality, reliable electronic lock. The associated access controller, or user interface, validates the user credential and signals the cabinet to open. Once access is triggered by this electronic signal, a digital signature is created and archived for audit trail purposes, and can be accessed locally or remotely. Electronic locks can be operated through a variety of access control devices, such as digital keypads, Bluetooth controllers, RFID and biometric readers.

Audit trail capability and regulatory compliance

When controlling valuable pharmaceuticals and potentially dangerous medical supplies such as narcotics or biohazards, audit trails are critical for tracking access and inventory. Hospital dispensing and storage equipment, refrigerators and warming cabinets for biologics and IV fluids, and blood banks all present security risks. Security of confidential patient information is also a priority, with medical facilities facing large fines and penalties for noncompliance with HIPAA and the HITECH Act.

Intelligent, concealed electronic locks offer a unique and efficient way to control access and maintain security of valuable information and medical supplies. Electronic locking devices can provide a record of which user gained access, when and for how long. With complete control of credentialing, a hospital administrator can have indisputable evidence of when records were accessed, and by whom.

While the alternative – manual record keeping – is often less convenient, a digital record can facilitate production of audit trail reports, and can assist with investigations of discrepancies or potential security breaches. With an electronic access system in place, electronic credentials may be easily granted or revoked, eliminating  key management issues. Additionally, electronic locks can be networked with a medical facility’s existing security system to monitor and control access remotely.

Mobile medical equipment security solutions

Security mobile medical equipment not only applies to carts and equipment within a medical facility, it applies to mobile providers of healthcare services as well. Specialty vehicles such as ambulances, mobile medical aid units, and home healthcare service providers operate under the same requirements as hospitals with regard to tracking medications and supplies.

Unfortunately, these entities may experience even greater security challenges than hospitals. Criminals are known to target emergency vehicles in search of narcotics, entering a vehicle while the medical team is attending to the emergency at hand. In many cases, EMS personnel may not be aware of incidents of theft until vehicle supplies are inventoried later. Shift changes among emergency workers makes controlling access even more difficult.

Depending on the level of access control needed, there are many options for securing medical equipment and supplies on the go, including:

  • Self-Contained Systems

Installation of fully self-contained electronic locking systems constitutes a highly effective, cost-effective solution for controlling access to emergency vehicles. New or existing storage cabinets within a vehicle can be easily outfitted with these battery-operated, audit trail capable locks.

  • Electronic Rotary Locks

Emergency vehicles have numerous doors and compartments, which may need to be unlocked and re-locked one by one – a time-consuming task unlikely to be undertaken during an emergency. For faster, easier control, intelligent electronic rotary locks connected to an RF controller can be used to open or close multiple doors simultaneously with a single key fob click.

  • Networked Access Solutions

Depending on the hospital or healthcare facility’s security requirements, fully networked access controllers can also be installed. These devices communicate wirelessly with a hospital’s existing network, so when the vehicle approaches the building, updated audit-trail and credential information can be registered instantly.

Simplified electronic access control

The most simplified and cost-effective option for protecting new enclosures or upgrading existing equipment is with a self-contained electronic locking system. Self-contained solutions typically incorporate an access control device, electronic lock, electrical override and power supply into a single unit. This solution offers easy installation, with drop-in assemblies that can be mounted into standard panel preps without additional wiring, and simple battery operation.

Single-package electronic locking solutions, like Southco’s SC Self-Contained Electronic Locking System, can be used with existing employee credentials to protect access to valuable medical supplies.

Self-contained electronic access systems work with existing building security systems across the medical facility to control access in that the same ID badges that are used with an RFID based card access system for building access can be used to access cabinets, carts and equipment across the medical facility. Each time a cabinet equipped with a self-contained solution is opened using an RFID badge, a signal is stored that confirms and logs access. In addition, audit trail data can be downloaded onto a separate utility key, which can then be read via any computer USB port. This digital record of information can then be used to demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements.

Consider electronic access

Installation of electronic locking devices with audit trail capabilities can be a simple, economical and highly effective upgrade that can improve both security and accountability in medical supply containment. Monitoring and control of pharmaceuticals, biologics and other valuable or hazardous medical materials at risk of theft or tampering, as well as HIPAA-protected data, can be easily achieved by implementing the appropriate electronic access solution.

Electronic access solutions combine intelligent electromechanical locking and access control to protect patient information and medical supplies, offering an effective solution for safeguarding sensitive materials within a hospital or mobile medical setting. Hospital and healthcare administrators, as well as medical design engineers, may find electronic access the perfect solution for today’s security and access control challenges.

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