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Chip Implants: Better Care or Privacy Scare?

Implanted RFID Chips Carry Coded Medical Information
By
WebMD Health News

July 27, 2005 -- They're here. They have FDA approval. But are Americans ready to get chipped?

Getting chipped means having a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip implanted in your body. The chip -- about the size of a large grain of rice -- lies dormant until a special scanner is passed within 6 inches of the implant. Then it emits a radio signal that beams a 16-digit number to the scanner.

For security uses, that 16-digit number acts like an electronic key. For medical uses, the number is linked to medical records. Doctors to whom you've granted access -- emergency room doctors, for example -- can use the key to quickly get hold of your medical records.

Who would want such a thing? That depends on how you ask, says Scott Silverman, CEO of Applied Digital, which makes the FDA-approved RFID called VeriChip.

"When we first announced VeriChip, a network poll asked people if they would put one in their bodies," Silverman tells WebMD. "Only 9% said yes. After FDA approval, 19% said yes. When former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson joined our board, the rate went up to 33%. But our own study shows that if you ask people whether they would have a VeriChip implant to identify their medical records in case of an emergency, the positive response goes to 80%."

The chip got FDA approval in October 2004. Since then, Silverman says, some 2,000 people worldwide are using them for medical or security purposes. But soon he expects that millions of people will get VeriChip implants every year.

Who Would Use RFID Implants?

Silverman says the medical chips are meant for five groups of patients:

  • People with other implanted medical devices, such as defibrillators.
  • Heart patients, especially patients who have stents in one or more blood vessels.
  • People with diabetes.
  • Memory-impaired patients, such as people with Alzheimer's disease.
  • Patients who need frequent medical care.

The devices won't do much good unless hospitals buy scanners. Applied Digital maintains a secure database to hold client records. But many hospitals using the system will set up secure databases to hold -- and to safeguard -- the medical records of patients with RFID implants.

Two hospitals already are set up to do this: New Jersey's Hackensack Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

John Halamka, MD, an emergency-room doctor at Beth Israel Deaconess, has one of the chips implanted in the back of his right arm, between the elbow and the shoulder. An account of his impressions appears in the July 28 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

"A small amount of anesthetic is injected before the implantation is done, so the actual implant insertion feels just like receiving a vaccine -- a bit of pressure, not specific pain," Halamka writes WebMD in an email. "The chip has not had any impact on my self-image. I think of it as just another technology that provides practical value for me, such as my BlackBerry."

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