ID-4-PAPD: Greasing Liberia’s Development Wheels (Part 6)


How Biometric IDs Save Lives

By J. Tiah Nagbe, MSF, ChFC 

Today’s IDs are much more than plastics people carry in their wallets or purses to show who they are. Instead, they are driven by technologies that power modern processes and therefore are a key catalyst for human development. It is in this way that biometric IDs can play a big part in making people live healthier lives. Two ways in which this occurs are through health insurance and what I like to call ‘universal medical reports’. Allow me now to explain this further. But before that let’s look back at last week.

Our last article was about the substantial financial benefits that governments derive from modern ID systems through savings from payroll cleaning operations. I pointed out the difficulty in paying thousands or, in some cases, millions of people to carry out government functions in several localities of a country. I said that these challenges provide loopholes for ghost names to show up on payrolls, which can rob governments of millions of dollars. Then, I went on to show that, with biometric identification, each person is uniquely identified. Therefore, ghost names can be easily detected and removed from government payrolls. This process saves a lot of money, which in the case of Liberia could be more than US$75 million over the next five years.

Biometrics make Human Insurance Possible

They say that health is wealth. Which I agree with. But it takes wealth to pay for health, so they both work hand-in-hand. In other words, people need to have good money to get great health, because quality healthcare is not cheap today. But this money does not have to be your money alone. It can be other people’s money as well. And this is how health insurance comes into the picture because it allows people to join together and share health risks. This means that when one person is sick today, those who are not sick will contribute to paying for the cost of treating that sick person. But the problem is that health insurance for large populations is impossible without biometric identification. And this too is how biometrics come into the health picture.

A look at vehicle insurance management may help us understand this situation. Vehicles have insurance that is easy to manage for one reason: every vehicle has a VIN (vehicle identification number). It is a number assigned only to the vehicle that is written somewhere on the vehicle. Even two vehicles with the same make, year of manufacture, color, model and all that, have two separate VINs. Therefore, it is only a vehicle that is covered by the insurance that gets repaired under the program.

But what is the equivalence of a vehicle identification number for a human being, a kind of number that is unique only to each person? The answer is a biometric national identification number (NIN).  Without such numbers, there will be plenty of ghost names in a big health insurance program with people who are not part of the program manipulating it to receive benefits. This will eventually break down the health insurance program.

Biometrics Support ‘Universal Health Reports’

A new thing that has been introduced is to take some of the medical information of a person and store it on the internet, through what they call the ‘cloud’. This report may not have all the medical information of a person, especially very sensitive and confidential information. But such things as blood type, allergies, some health conditions, and medications may be included. Of course, there is restricted access to this information. The benefit of this is that if this person is critically ill and cannot say much, healthcare personnel can use the sick person’s ID number to gain access to this important medical information for urgent treatment that may save his/her life. This can be very useful in cases where the person falls seriously sick while traveling far away from home. Again, if the people whose information is stored on this system are in the millions, there may be problems with some people being mistaken for others. Biometrics can solve this problem by making sure that each person is uniquely identified and there is no or very little problems with mistaken identities.

Wrapping it up

Health insurance programs and ‘universal medical reports’ would probably not be around today without biometrics, which allow us to uniquely identify people.  This enables us to ring-fence those covered by these programs and prevent outsiders from intruding, as well as preventing mistaken identities even among members of the program. Health insurance and ‘universal’ medical reports save lives’. And because they are made possible partly by biometrics, we can say that biometrics too help to save lives. Next week, we will take a look at how national biometric ID systems can support the telecommunication sector of a country.


  • Anthony Kokoi is a young Liberian sports writer who has an ever-growing passion for the development of the game of football (soccer) and other sports. For the past few years, he has been passionately engaged in reporting the developments of the game in the country. He is an associate member of the Sports Writers Association of Liberia (SWAL). He is a promoter of young talents. He also writes match reports and makes an analysis of Liberian Football.

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