Researchers Working on Using ECG Signal as a Living 'Fingerprint'

By Tiffani Sherman
September 26, 2017

A main use would be for wireless and mobile health care. Only the physician would have access to the electrocardiograph data and could easily match it to the patient, without costly decryption.

Have trouble remembering all the passwords you have? Soon, your heartbeat might be all you need.

Researchers at the State University of New York at Binghamton are working on ways to use electrocardiograph signals as identifiers. “The ECG signal has been studied for quite a while,” says Zhanpeng Jin, a biometrics specialist and assistant professor in the university’s electrical and computer engineering department. “Generally, the ECG wave form is unique among persons.”

But it has limitations — mainly, the fact it can change based on disease, recent exercise or emotional condition. “It will be affected by different factors,” Jin says, and he and his team are working on an algorithm to account for them.

However, there is one unique benefit to a heartbeat over some other biological signature, such as a fingerprint, that can be easily duplicated or altered. “ECG contains the liveness signal by nature,” Jin says. “The ECG has to come from a live person.”

A main use would be for wireless and mobile health care. “There is a trend to transition from a clinic-centered health care to a user-centered health care,” Jin says. Patients would constantly monitor their own health and transmit data to their physicians — which is something many people already do in a basic way. “Wearable sensors have become very popular right now,” Jin says. Devices such as Fitbit and Apple Watch constantly take data readings, but they have their drawbacks. “They transport data primarily in the raw format, which means without encryption,” Jin says.

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Security in the form of encryption can be time-consuming, expensive and consume precious battery life, which is important to mobile device users. Using an ECG signal as a unique patient identifier could help physicians easily identify which patient device is sending a signal at a particular time, since only the physician would have access to the ECG data and could easily match the device data to the patient, without costly decryption. “People are concerned about their privacy. They want everything protected, but they are also concerned about battery life,” Jin says.

The data also could save human lives. Using ECG data as a unique identifier could be an economical way to move toward more preventive and mobile health care. “Whatever device I own, I can periodically update the data and send it to the physician’s or provider’s office,” Jin says, “ECG data is very important in clinical diagnosis.”

A physician could monitor incoming data, look for abnormalities and notify a patient. “It’s prevention health care, and this kind of health care can save money and time for doctors and patients,” Jin says. It could be a time saver because the data sent over time will provide a type of patient history, eliminating the need to take repeat data. A physician could know quickly if an abnormality has happened. “We may find a lot of early warning signs based on physiological signals,” he says.

This type of historical data fits right into the goals of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. On its website, healthit.gov, it lists tracking data over time, being able to identify patients who are due for preventive screenings and visits, monitoring how patients measure up to certain parameters, and improving the overall quality of care in medical practices as benefits of electronic medical records.

Jin and his research partners have used existing hospital data to test their algorithms. “Right now, the accuracy is pretty good,” he says, adding “we have already tested this using publicly available databases.” Hospitals collect data with patient consent and put that data out for academic use.

Jin sees this as a market with unlimited potential. “The entire industry has significant growth in the development of these devices,” Jin says. “We can believe in the next few years, we will have more devices and the people will get used to wearing them on their bodies,” he says. “The new wearable and mobile technology will fundamentally change the way health care services are delivered in the future.”

Tiffani Sherman is a freelance health care writer based in Florida.

Topics: Technology

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