Pretty soon, hospitals may know patients as well as the back, or rather, the palm of their hand.

New technology already adopted by nearly 200 hospitals in 40 health systems nationwide captures near-infrared images of the veins in a patient's hand and automatically links to the correct electronic patient record.

Much like other increasingly popular biometric technologies such as fingerprint or iris scans, palm readers are not meant to just save time, but also improve security.

Houston-area Harris Health System made the switch three years ago to PatientSecure, a palm-scan technology developed by HT Systems. Tim Tindle, executive vice president and chief information officer of Harris County Hospital District, says they were out to solve two major problems.

One was ensuring that the right record is pulled in an area where many patients have the same name. Type Maria Garcia into the database, he says, and you will get 2,488 people with that first and last name, 231 of whom have the same birth date as well.

The other concern? Since 34 percent of Harris' patient population is uninsured, cards issued for charity care for one patient who qualified often were shared fraudulently with another person who didn't. Incorrect identities put hospitals, patients and insurance companies at risk. Palm scans eliminate the doubt of patient identity.

New York University's Langone Medical Center in Manhattan has used the palm scanners for more than three years.

"We had some 80,000 records that were duplicates," says Kathryn McClellan, the vice president in charge of implementing the system's electronic health record. Duplicates came from a misspelling in a name, triggering creation of a new file, or from a person entering the system at more than one location.

Palm scans eliminate duplicates because only one record can be attached to one palm scan. McClellan says they also knock time off registration because once patients are in the system, it takes only seconds for the reader to confirm an identity. They work even if the patient is unconscious.

Tindle said that having scanners installed at 50 locations initially cost the system about $700,000. Since 2010, the system has cut wait times and eliminated duplicate records with virtually no complaints from patients, he says.

"Anyone looking at that number will say that's a lot of money," Tindle says. "But we'll use that for decades and what's one lawsuit cost? What's the value of one life?"