Jan 20 2022

Physical Security Technology Keeps Hospital Staff and Patients Safe

Healthcare organizations bolster safety and security with cloud-based video surveillance systems.

In an industry understandably laser-focused on all things cybersecurity, it can seem as if physical security gets short shrift. But talk to healthcare professionals across the country, or to the leaders of most hospital IT teams, and it quickly becomes clear that’s not the case.

“Hundreds of studies over the past 10 years all say the same thing,” says Paul Sarnese, immediate past president of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety. “If you work in healthcare, you’re four to five times more likely to be a victim of aggravated assault than you are in any other occupation.”

That reality and the related threats to patients have led the vast majority of healthcare systems to invest not only in security staff and training but also in improved video surveillance systems.

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In California’s Imperial Valley, El Centro Regional Medical Center sought out Verkada for a cloud-based solution to scale video security across its 165-bed hospital and nine other facilities.

Like many healthcare organizations, the medical center had endured its share of dangerous situations over the years, says Darryl Mark, associate administrator for information services.

“Patients attacking employees, disgruntled family members,” he adds. “We had a lot of incidents where our security team would respond, but we’d rarely have reliable insight into what happened because we didn’t have any cameras set up.”

In late 2019, the healthcare system turned to Verkada and began installing cameras in its outpatient facilities. The process went quickly at first, Mark says, but they were forced to pause as the COVID-19 pandemic picked up. Their final installations, in the hospital itself, are slated for completion in 2021.

Safety and Security at Scale for Healthcare

The new technology has already proved its value where it is in place at El Centro Regional Medical Center, Mark says. At one site, for example, the cameras recorded footage of a visitor stashing contraband in the facility’s bathrooms ahead of a scheduled visit by local prisoners. “Our environmental services people were finding these things, and they had an idea who might have put them there, but they could only remember what the individual was wearing, not what she looked like.”

Using an analytics tool that is part of their Verkada system, staff searched surveillance video with the details they knew, Mark says. “We put in the clothing parameters, and it pulled her right up. Then all we did was send the footage to law enforcement, and they used it as part of their investigation.”

As his team members deal with security during the pandemic, Mark says, they’re always finding new places across the organization where additional cameras are needed.

To handle a recent surge in local infections, for example, they had to put up tents so patients could be seen without having to wait in line inside. “That was a round-the-clock operation, and it required a lot of equipment to make it happen,” he says. But soon after the tents were installed, there were reports of worrisome patient behavior and at least one incident where a visitor tried to steal supplies.

DISCOVER: Why does healthcare need to modernize its physical security strategy?

“Putting cameras there was an easy decision,” Mark says. “But the best part was, it was easy to do.”

Most hospitals, Sarnese adds, had installed cameras well before the pandemic, but “they’re just using them in different ways now, and they’re using them in combination with other technologies.”

A growing number of organizations, for example, are using facial-recognition technology to better control access to restricted spaces.

“And now, with the pandemic, they’re also using it to determine if you’re wearing a mask,” Sarnese says. A visitor who refuses to wear a mask would never make it through the door, he adds, which could prevent a confrontation and the possibility that an argument could turn to something worse.

Better Security Tools for Better Control

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles, Support Services Director Mark Reed hopes to avoid the trend of rising workplace violence in healthcare.

“We’re definitely dealing with new issues and problems, like people who won’t wear masks and get aggressive,” Reed says. “But we’ve also seen drastic reductions in incidents overall, and that’s probably because of our security program.”

The hospital’s security program was overhauled in 2019, not long before the start of the pandemic. In addition to increased staff training and the hiring of experienced security personnel, the project focused on using state-of-the-art technologies, including two important upgrades to the hospital’s video surveillance system.

Until that point, Reed says, the hospital had relied on a third-party security team to monitor its fleet of Axis Communications network cameras installed in halls and entranceways. But now it hoped to bring camera management in-house and needed a way to do it both affordably and effectively.

“The biggest thing was that our video system wasn’t integrated with our access control system,” Reed says. “We wanted them to be able to talk to each other and not be isolated in their own silos.”

Mark Reed
We’re definitely dealing with new issues and problems, like people who won’t wear masks and get aggressive. But we’ve also seen drastic reductions in incidents overall, and that’s probably because of our security program.”

Mark Reed Support Services Director, Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital

The team was also concerned about operational efficiencies and making the most of the limited resources it had. “It wasn’t realistic to think we could have one person sitting in a room tracking hundreds of video feeds. We realized we needed a certain amount of automation, some programming to do the detection and bring it to our attention.”

Working closely with Axis, the hospital turned to a new video management system that pulled its existing platforms together, and then added an audio analytics tool: a noise detection and classification solution.

Now, when a door alarm sounds, for example, the video feed associated with that door pops up on a screen in the security operations center. And if there are any unusual noises in the area, such as a gunshot or the sound of breaking glass, an officer on duty is alerted to those as well.

“We’re fortunate that we’ve never had a shooting,” Reed says. “But we often pick up on things like agitated patients or upset visitors causing problems in the main lobby.”

In the years before the pandemic when such incidents occurred, security often arrived after the problem threatened to spiral out of control. Today, thanks to the early-warning system, an officer is usually on the scene in a matter of seconds.

“Because we can see it happening in real time, and because we know exactly where we need to go, we’re almost always able to calm things down before that aggression has a chance to escalate,” Reed says.

READ MORE: Enhance physical security with cloud-managed video surveillance.

Physical Security ‘Up and Running’ in the Cloud

Facial-recognition technology is not in the plans at the Mental Health Center of Denver, but the organization does use video surveillance to bolster security across its 36 sites.

Until about three years ago, says Vice President and CIO Wes Williams, the center’s security program relied on three different analog camera systems and a process he describes as “cumbersome.”

The cameras at any given site only connected to the network at that location, and the footage recorded was typically stored on a local computer hard drive. If a site experienced an incident and wanted to send footage to the police, “someone from IT would have to go out to that location, access the recording and put it on a thumb drive or DVD,” Williams says.

The center did away with that approach in 2019 when it replaced the individual systems with a cloud-based solution from Verkada. Now, video is stored directly on the encrypted hard drive that is built in on all of the company’s cameras, and footage is easily retrievable online through a dashboard on a computer at IT headquarters. 

“It’s supereasy to manage and maintain, and it’s also completely scalable,” Williams says.

Whenever the organization adds another building, as it did recently with its new Behavioral Health Solutions Center, “all we have to do is connect the cameras to our network, and that’s it. We’re up and running,” Williams adds.

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