SA’s public hospitals need better security urgently – smart integrated technology can limit risk fast, inexpensively

Public sector hospitals in South Africa are overburdened to say the least.

October 2, 2012

By Johan Roux, Technology Manager: Jasco Security Solutions

Public sector hospitals in South Africa are overburdened to say the least. Challenges include budget constraints and ad-hoc purchase decisions that result in disparate technology investments.  This is most apparent with security in hospitals and clinics but fortunately there is a solution at hand – intelligent, automated and integrated security systems that facilitate more stringent controls.

Smart does not cost a lot. Lose 10 laptops and you’re down R100 000 and a whole lot of productivity besides. That’s more than it costs to tag 1000 items and put a few tag readers in at hospital exits. And if you stretch to the expense of a biometric reader at the boom exit of the facility, no-one is going to be leaving the premises with a laptop or any other piece of tagged equipment unless their fingerprint is coded or paired to the tag on the equipment.

Babies can be tagged too. Paired tags, worn as a bracelet, can keep newborns safe. The baby gets one and it’s paired with bracelets worn by a select few individuals (the nurse, the mother and/or father). Only they can move around with the baby without alarms sounding, armed guards being alerted and CCTV cameras switching into record mode.

There are any number of other solutions like this – solutions that are integrated with built-in failover, that are not easy to ‘break’, avoid or disable, that are user-friendly to operate and don’t cost the earth to maintain.

Consider the challenges of securing high risk areas like pharmacies or medicine dispensaries within hospitals. Here, access cards or biometrics are generally used and dual authorisation is needed – e.g., a manager may need to be accompanied by a supervisor – to gain access to the store. And as they place their fingers on the reader or swipe their cards, a camera takes a picture.

But acquiring and installing these systems is not the first step. To be effective, these solutions need to tie in with, and add value to hospital processes and procedures. They need to be easy to operate, fast, and non-intrusive. Above all, they cannot obstruct staff doing vital daily tasks – namely taking care of patients.

Integrated, but modular – scaling security to meet need and budgets

So what does a fully integrated security system look like, what does it comprise? The most useful systems are modular, can leverage existing investments (e.g. analogue CCTV cameras) and allow the organisation to roll out security components, or upgrade them according to need and available budget.

Modules for standard systems include access control, which can double up as a time and attendance system, CCTV cameras, asset management (RF tags and readers), possibly biometric readers for high risk areas, baby monitoring systems and a nurse call system. Fire alarms, lighting and cooling equipment can also be integrated through the use of a centralised Building Management System.

A real joy is the fact that new security systems are all IP based, making them easy to connect into existing networks. However, it’s always good practice to run security on a different network to sensitive financial or patient information when possible.

Get a security manager

Private hospitals appoint a security manager to oversee security staff and systems and ensure safety of patients and staff and secure assets. In some hospitals, security is often managed by an already overburdened administrator who has little understanding of technology or even security best practices for hospitals.

In these situations it can be very useful to engage with security consultants that can look at the situation holistically and advise on a solid upgrade or refurbishment strategy that mitigates immediate and greatest risk, and enables the facility to enhance and scale its security as budget becomes available.

While minimum security standards in hospitals are legislated, the cost of failed security systems is devastating to reputation and moral as the hostage drama at the Westville Hospital in April this year and the stabbing of a nurse at the Sterkfontein Hospital in Krugersdrop in February highlighted.

But the safety of patients is not the only pressing concern in the healthcare sector. Theft is costing the industry millions of rands in stolen goods, including loss of ambulances.  This obviously impacts the quality of treatment and care.

Take it one step at a time

For any hospital the first step is to audit the infrastructure and systems they do have in place. Assess network capacity, know what is working, benchmark the performance of systems, and identify gaps. Then look at areas of highest risk and balance what can be achieved with available budget with a staged roll out over a number of years to enhance the system.

It is advisable for healthcare entities or facilities to partner with a company that know how hospitals function. Security system design is tremendously important but so is the launch of the system and ensuring it is used properly. When it comes to security in these facilities, half measures are unacceptable – the risk is just too high.