Thursday, August 23, 2007

VeriChip Implants and Privacy Concerns

Two articles dealing with human-implantable RFID chips in the St Pete Times and the Healthcare IT News are worth considering. The company producing the implantable RFID chips is VeriChip. The company is based in Delray Beach, Florida, and is publicly traded on NASDAQ (CHIP). The implantable chip was cleared for medical use by the FDA in October, 2004. The company's present focus is tagging "high risk" patients such as those with diabetes, heart conditions or Alzheimers Disease.

Some quick facts to consider:
a. The chips are inserted in the upper right arm with a a hypodermic-type needle. The cost of the procedure: $200.
b. VeriChip uses a patented process, called bio-bind, to secure the chip to muscle tissue and prevent migration.
c. Medical personnel wave a scanner within 12 inches of the chip. A 16-digit identification appears to identify the person.
d. VeriChip maintains the patient's records in its database. Customers pay an annual fee, from $20 to $80, to keep a medical file.

The American Medical Association Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs recommended that radio frequency identification (RFID) devices can be used to help identify patients, improve patient care and secure access to patient clinical information. But the AMA cautioned that the "efficacy and security" of the devices has not been established. As precautions, the AMA said, physicians implanting such devices should:
a. Disclose the medical uncertainties of RFIDs to patients as part of the informed consent process.
b. Strive to protect patients' privacy by storing confidential information only on RFID devices with informational security similar to that required of medical records.
c. Support research into safe, effective and potential non-medical uses of RFID devices in people.

John Halamka, the Chief Information Officer of the Care Group Health System, wrote an article entitled "Straight From the Shoulder" in the July 28, 2005 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. He has a VeriChip implanted in his body, and has claimed that there have been no harmful side effects. In a sense, he is serving as a poster child for the procedure.

Privacy advocates have yet to sign on, as far as I can tell. And, people who harbor religious concerns about such chips being a precursor to the "mark of the beast" will not be placated by the either the AMA or the FDA.

I sense that the use of implantable chips in humans will grow, albeit slowly. High risk patients would appear to be the major beneficiaries of the technology. Overcoming the public's unease, either on religious grounds or for privacy qualms, is a major constraint.

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