In an age of technological breakthroughs, biometric technology is becoming part and parcel of daily living. Many institutions globally are implementing the biometric technology, especially the fingerprint technology. In healthcare sectors, biometric fingerprint technology has proven to be a useful tool in solving some of the complex problems that regions with limited resources face.
In Africa, identification of patients within health services is a tough operational challenge. This is not only true for African countries but also other parts of the globe facing resource limitations. For instance, when tracking groups that are prone to HIV risks for provision of service or in the vaccine trial context, misidentification of patients can result to harm and trial outcomes that are biased.

Use of electronic fingerprinting has been in proposal for a long time for use in identification of patients over time and linking the data between health services. It is reported that patient identification between and within health services is tough operational challenge in the greater extent of the sub-Saharan Africa. A survey conducted in 30 health facilities in Burundi, Rwanda, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast found that 93% of the health supervision teams had major problems in identifying patients.

The current methods of patient identification used in the sub-Saharan region cannot confirm the identity. Most of the health clinics in the region rather use name of patient, birth date, government identification or their telephone number to identify the patients. The problem with it is that the records are not centralised and this makes it very difficult to follow patients across services. Additionally, the identifiers are also inexact in African context. For instance a study conducted on 27 Burundian and Rwandan health facilities showed that most patients do not know their precise date of birth and spellings of patient names also vary. As a result of this, multiple records for a give patient existed within a single health facility.

Use of biometric systems seems like the only way through which African countries can easily identify patients and follow them to different facilities. The use of biometric systems is increasing to improve keeping of more accurate records and reduce patient identification challenges faced in Africa. For instance, a pilot acceptability study was conducted by researchers in South Africa and found a high adult electronic fingerprint acceptability rates, above 90% among the non-stigmatised people. In a different research in South Africa, another group successfully implemented fingerprint technology for their patients’ identification out of 1130 clients.

In a different case, an electronic fingerprint system that had been developed by Vaxtrac was successfully used to track vaccination schedules among children in Benin.  The system however required identity validation with the mother’s fingerprint due to several issues in processing infant fingerprints.

While the popularity of biometric fingerprint identification continue to grow in most health care facilities around Africa, the acceptability and feasibility of this technology continues to be unknown among the stigmatised or vulnerable populations. A study conducted in government health facilities in Rwanda showed that most people were concerned how the government could use their fingerprints.

Written by Kenneth Hogrefe