A shot-in-the-arm microchip could save your life

Bergen County police Sgt. William Koretsky was barely conscious when paramedics rushed him to the emergency room at Hackensack University Medical Center in May.

Suffering head trauma after his cruiser hit a telephone pole while on a stolen-car chase, the 44-year-old diabetic was in no shape to give doctors his medical history.

That job was left to a tiny microchip buried beneath the skin of his right arm.

Doctors at Hackensack simply waved a hand-held scanner a couple of inches above the elbow on the back of Koretsky’s right arm, and up popped a 16-digit link to his electronic medical records.

Hackensack is the first New Jersey hospital to adopt the VeriMed patient identification system, using a radio frequency identification microchip. And Koretsky is believed to be the first patient in the United States to put the chip to the test in an actual emergency.

About the size of a grain of rice, the chip stores personal identifiers, such as name and address, as well as medical information and emergency contacts. The information is accessed by computer after entering a pass code and user name.

“Until the accident, I actually forgot it was there,” said Koretsky, who has since returned to work.

Koretsky had the chip implanted last year at the urging of Bergen County Police Chief John Schmidig, who also has one.

Manufactured by VeriChip Corp. of Delray Beach, Fla., the chip was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in October 2002. It belongs to the same family of technology used to scan credit cards or road toll transponders. A “reader” communicates with a “tag” that holds digital information in a microchip.

Chip implantation takes about 10 minutes and is much like getting an injection. Koretsky said he felt no pain because doctors first numbed his upper arm with an anesthetic.

Richard Seelig, VeriChip’s vice president for medical applications, said the company has been introducing the microchip to health care facilities around the country, especially in the Northeast. It currently has more than 100 medical facilities committed to using the technology and expects another 100 to sign up by the end of this year.

Worldwide, about 2,500 people have received VeriChip implants.

“There is a universally recognized need for rapid access to medical information,” Seelig said. When additional patient information is added to the VeriMed system database, it is automatically retrieved when the chip is scanned, so there is no need to have a new chip implanted, he added.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey recently announced a two-year collaboration with Hackensack to add some of its members to the program. Horizon will send 500 letters to patients with chronic illnesses, explaining the benefits of getting a chip implant.

“We are sitting on tons and tons of patient information and this is a way for us to make that information available to those taking care of the patient,” said Darryl Donlin, Horizon’s manager of member program development.

Horizon members who participate will get an implant at no cost under the pilot program, officials said. VeriChip officials said the device and implant normally cost $200.

Seelig said the company believes the microchip is most suitable for patients with cognitive illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease; people with implanted medical devices, such as pacemakers and cardiac stents; and those suffering from strokes or chronic health conditions, such as congestive heart failure or diabetes.

About 30 chronically ill patients have been implanted with the device so far at Hackensack. But the trauma department is scanning anyone who comes in with a condition that makes communication difficult or impossible, just in case that patient has a chip implant, said Joseph Feldman, department chairman.

Other health care facilities in New Jersey, such as the Saint Barnabas Health Care System, also are looking into the technology.

“We’re evaluating it. We want to make sure it’s the best (technology) available,” said John Brennan, senior vice president of clinical and emergency services.