This Chip Could be a Lifesaver

In the future, patients arriving in the emergency room who need immediate access to their medical records may be armed — literally — with a tiny, hightech helper.

More than 1,000 Americans have already volunteered to get a microchip about the size of a grain of rice embedded in their arms. The chip — similar to those now used to identify thousands of pets nationwide — allows EMS and ER crews to gain quick access to patients’ medical e-files should they be unable to provide them.

“So, if a patient comes in and has the chip in their arm, the hospital’s system will recognize them and pull up their entire medical record,” explained David Ellis, who has examined the new VeriChip in his dual capacities as corporate director for Planning and Future Studies at the Detroit Medical Center, and as co-founder of the Michigan Electronic Medical Record Initiative.

Right now, he said, emergency care staff lose precious time tracking down incoming patients’ medical histories. In many cases, a patient’s files are incomplete or scattered among various clinics and hospitals.

“These are often people who are outside the system or they are too old or frail to know what’s happened to them in the past,” Ellis said. “In many cases they may simply be unconscious, traumatically injured.”

The VeriChip, developed by Applied Digital Solutions, of Delray Beach, Fla., could help many of these patients, he said. The tiny chip, which costs about $200, is injected under the skin of the arm in a minimally invasive procedure that takes less than 20 minutes.

Experts stress that the chip itself does not contain the patient’s medical records, just a 16-digit code that a hospital scanner picks up on. That digital identifier is then used to track down the patient’s medical files via computer.

While the technology sounds like a win-win for everyone, it does have its critics — namely privacy advocates who worry the embedded chip could lead to a “Big Brother” state where computers track an individual’s every move.

But Ellis believes those fears are unfounded.

“First of all, the chips are voluntary, and we believe that they should always remain that way,” he said. “This technology is also very easily removed if anyone later changes their mind about having one.”

He also noted that scanners can only read the chips from distances less than a few feet. “You can’t be tracked by satellite,” Ellis said.

Finally, “all that can be read on the chip is that ID number,” he added. “So it requires that
someone not only be able to read that ID number but also have access to the database that matches the ID number with the actual patient name and details.”

The VeriChip is gaining slow acceptance: former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson pledged to be “chipped” once he joined the VeriChip Corp. board of directors. And last summer, Dr. John Hamalka of Harvard Medical School outlined his experience receiving an embedded VeriChip in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Hamalka, an avid mountain climber, said having the chip gave him added peace of mind that emergency staff would be better able to care for him should he become seriously injured. Speaking with HealthDay, he said that without the chip, “if I were to be hurt in any way, there’s not a whole lot people would find on my body that would identify me.”

Still, the notion that these technologies will undermine privacy remains a roadblock inhibiting their wider use, Ellis said.

“It’s my job at the Detroit Medical Center to track trends, and if we think that at some point the technology makes enough sense and brings enough benefit to patients, then it’s probably going to be adopted,” he said. “But again, we have to be sensitive like everyone else to public perception. It’s not something that we can rush into.”