News&Views

July 23, 2007

A microchip on one’s shoulder

Filed under: — mlazoff

Would Americans sacrifice their anonymity so that their medical information is always available in an emergency? An ABC News article published on their Web site over the weekend, “Chips: High Tech Aids or Tracking Tools?” discusses the pros and cons of implantable microchips with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. The article describes the technology: “In design, the tag is simple: A medical-grade glass capsule holds a silicon computer chip, a copper antenna and a ‘capacitor’ that transmits data stored on the chip when prompted by an electromagnetic reader. Implantations are quick, relatively simple procedures. After a local anesthetic is administered, a large-gauge, hypodermic needle injects the chip under the skin on the back of the arm, midway between the elbow and the shoulder…The capsules can migrate around the body or bury themselves deep in the arm. When that happens, a sensor X-ray and monitors are needed to locate the chip, and a plastic surgeon must cut away scar tissue that forms around the chip.” Noninvasive tags such as MedicAlert bracelets, currently used by patients with serious allergies or conditions, can be lost even when they are used consistently by the patient.

The relatively lengthy article describes both the technology’s benefits and downsides: “John Halamka, an emergency physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston got chipped two years ago, ’so that if I was ever in an accident, and arrived unconscious or incoherent at an emergency ward, doctors could identify me and access my medical history quickly.’ (A chipped person’s medical profile can be continuously updated, since the information is stored on a database accessed via the Internet.) But it’s also clear to Halamka that there are consequences to having an implanted identifier. ‘My friends have commented to me that I’m ‘marked’ for life, that I’ve lost my anonymity. And to be honest, I think they’re right.’”

According to the article, VeriChip Corporation makes implantable microchips for humans; 515 hospitals have opted into its network, but only 100 have actually been equipped and trained to use the system. VeriChip is currently targeting high-risk patients to be tagged. Physicians can purchase a starter kit with 10 microchips and a reader for $1,400. Each patient could be charged $200, an out-of-pocket expense payable directly to the physician since chip implants are not currently covered by private or government insurance. VeriChip currently charges $20 a year for customers to store their blood type, allergies, medications, driver’s license data and living-will directives. For $80 a year, it will store the customer’s full medical history.

(As noted on its Web site but not in the article, Dr. Halamka—who is also Chief Information Officer of Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Harvard Clinical Research Institute, in addition to Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine—has just joined VeriChip’s Medical Advisory Board.)



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