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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Chip Implants: Better Care or Privacy Scare?

Implanted RFID Chips Carry Coded Medical Information


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."

Halamka also writes that the chip has not set off airport security systems. Even though he's suffered "several physical impacts" while rock and ice climbing, the device is still working.

What About Privacy?

Halamka admits that the device does have privacy implications. What if unauthorized scanners track his unique 16-digit number, he worries, and use the information to target him with unwanted "spam" advertising?

To answer the ethical questions posed by RFID implants, WebMD turned to Arthur Caplan, PhD, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The core ethical issue is privacy concerns: the fear that you will be penalized if the wrong people -- your boss, your insurer, maybe police agencies -- get information about you," Caplan says. "But it is not clear right now how the chip technology puts that in peril."

Americans may think their medical information is top secret. But Caplan says that we have far less privacy than we think we do, given the number of people who can legitimately see our medical records. And the potential benefits of RFID implants outweigh their risks, Caplan argues.

"You are more likely to die or be harmed by lack of medical information about you than by people knowing too much about your medical information," he says. "In an emergency, it's important for doctors to know what your allergies and medical problems are, who your relatives are and how to reach them, your blood type, and so on."

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