Electronic Products & Technology

Securing medical equipment in the 21st century

By Steve Spatig, general manager, electronic access solutions Southco   


As the need for traditional physical security in the healthcare industry extends beyond access to the facility grounds, buildings and individual rooms, healthcare facility managers are placing an increased focus on the security of medical storage equipment such as charting stations, dispensing carts and cabinets. Many healthcare facilities are choosing medical equipment outfitted with electronic locking mechanisms or retrofitting existing equipment to better protect access to confidential information, medicines and medical supplies.

In recent years, healthcare providers have switched from paper medical records to electronic versions that are easier for multiple caregivers to access and share. But, with this switch, patient records must be kept secure and protected from the wrong individuals. Similarly, the electronic systems that house this information are often lighter, easier to handle and now located in close proximity to a patient’s bedside or in a hallway charting station, increasing the risk of unauthorized access. Patient information, supplies, drugs and controlled substances are now highly visible targets for thieves.

In many healthcare facilities, mechanical locks and keys are used as a primary means to protect patient records and controlled substances housed in private closets and secured rooms. However, mechanical locks and keys come with their own set of problems. Keys must be managed carefully to ensure that employees are not sharing them with other personnel or non-employees. If a key is lost, often times the entire lock must be replaced, thus requiring everyone to be assigned a new key. And, when an employee changes a shift or is no longer employed at the healthcare facility, the keys must be retrieved and then are often reassigned to a new employee.

Intelligent locking mechanisms secure important data  

Today, many healthcare facilities are turning to electronic locks and latches to replace mechanical locks. These intelligent locking mechanisms help to secure important patient data and can be an effective solution for healthcare facilities looking to upgrade existing medical equipment. Combined with an appropriate access control device, electronic locks can be easily networked into a facility’s overall security infrastructure, provide remote control and monitoring capabilities, and offer simple, intuitive quick access.


Electronic locks provide an advantage in that access codes can be easily managed and changed if necessary. Additionally, inherent in any electronic lock, a digital “signature” is created whenever the lock is actuated. This digital signature can then be paired with the electronic credential to create an audit trail identifying who has accessed equipment and the time of the event.

Numerous access control devices exist to provide the user or credential input to an electronic locking solution. Some healthcare providers prefer to use keypads to avoid the need to manage physical credentials. Other institutions prefer to use RFID-based access control to leverage their existing building security system. Access controllers can also be activated via biometrics, specifically fingerprint readers, which are commonly deployed. Another current trend is the use of Bluetooth or near field communication to leverage the proliferation of smart phones.

The electronic rotary lock is an example of a simple, versatile solution to achieve electronic equipment access in a facility. This lock is mounted inside of the equipment, requiring minimal interior space and allowing a clean exterior surface free of pry points, helping to protect the equipment from vandalism. These locks can be designed into new medical equipment, or retrofitted to existing systems.

Choosing an electronic locking system

For many healthcare facilities, the added security of electronic locking systems is appealing, but with the many options to choose from, selecting the right solution can be daunting.

Facility managers need to be sure they know the capabilities of their current system before choosing an electronic locking solution. A healthcare facility will need to decide whether to integrate equipment access control with existing security systems, or to implement a turnkey standalone solution.

Adding a mechanical override option to an electronic lock provides manual release in the event of a power failure at the facility. Incorporating an override feature provides doctors and nurses with added peace of mind should they need to access patient records and pharmaceuticals during a power outage.

Many electronic locking systems offer flexible locking options, including delayed re-locking, lock status monitoring, sleep mode and the ability to communicate with external systems. If a nurse is accessing a medical dispensing cart and is interrupted, a cart equipped with a lock that automatically re-locks itself after a period of time is ideal, should the nurse need to leave the cart unattended for a period of time.

Incorporating the appropriate electronic locking solution into healthcare equipment is the key to delivering an end product that delivers security, convenience and usability. For healthcare facilities, the most effective electronic access solutions will feature technologies that leverage existing control trends to provide doctors and nurses with an intuitive transition from mechanical to electronic access solutions.


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