Privacy concerns surround microchip implants with medical info

Sgt. Mike Tranchant is a 47-year-old Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy who likes to ride his bike and go to the gym. Ida Frankel, 92 and living in a West Palm Beach retirement community, needs her husband’s help even for simple tasks like preparing dinner and getting ready for bed.

But the two have something in common: Both have tiny glass-encapsulated microchips, encoded with a 16-digit number linked to their medical and personal records, implanted in their upper right arms.

Radio frequency identification devices, or RFIDs, are being promoted as a high-tech version of a medical ID bracelet, a file box full of vital information that can’t come off your wrist. About 400 people nationwide — about a fourth of them South Floridians — now have the chips. They are made by a Delray Beach company and the only such devices approved for use in humans.

But like many things in medical technology’s brave new world, implanting microchips in humans is raising serious questions about risks vs. benefits, and the ethics involved in making an informed choice.

Frankel’s husband, David, hopes the chip would alert health-care workers that Ida has Alzheimer’s disease — and tell them how to return her home, because her condition leaves her too confused to know her own address. Tranchant, who patrols in Wellington, thinks microchips are ideal for police or firefighters who may lose their identification while responding to traumatic emergency situations like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“What if my bracelet is burned off? What if I lose it? If I am in an accident, they’ll know my blood type, my allergies and who to call,” said Tranchant, who is allergic to a certain painkiller.

But consumer privacy groups have protested the use of RFIDs in humans, saying chips could be used to track people without their knowledge. The organizers of CASPIAN, or Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, have said the code on the chips is not secure, as it is transmitted by radio waves, and hackers could steal personal information.

And medical ethicists argue that consumers considering chips need unbiased, well-documented information clearly conveyed by neutral parties — especially if the decision involves vulnerable patients like those with Alzheimer’s.

“In the future, these RFID chips are going to lead to a lot more information being inside of people, so we want to establish ground rules now as far as privacy,” said Ken Goodman, the bioethics director at the University of Miami who has a specialty in information technologies.

In the case of VeriChip Corp., the Delray Beach manufacturer of Tranchant’s and Frankel’s chips, the debate was heightened by an Associated Press report last weekend that previous studies had tied RFIDs to cancer in laboratory rats and mice. The report suggested VeriChip and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration overlooked or ignored the research when, in 2004, federal regulators made VeriChip’s product the first implantable RFID approved for humans.

Company officials and federal regulators, however, said the animal data had been considered but that lab rodents were prone to developing tumors from any type of injection. FDA spokeswoman Karen Riley said: “Although we will continue to monitor articles on the VeriChip, at this time there appears no credible cause for concern.”

Alzheimer’s Community Care, a West Palm Beach-based nonprofit organization that operates day centers in several counties, also is proceeding with a joint project with VeriChip. The group plans to implant 200 Alzheimer’s disease patients with the company’s VeriMed chip over the next two years — as well as their caregivers, if they choose. VeriChip is providing the chips, which run between $200 to $300, for free, as well as waiving its monthly fee for the company-maintained database containing the medical and personal records.

VeriChip, which is owned by Applied Digital Solutions and started by making ID microchips for pets, is providing a scanner that reads the chip free to hospitals that join its network. About 640 hospitals nationwide have enrolled, VeriChip officials said. Tranchant said he also received his chip for free through a program targeting medical and emergency personnel.

Alzheimer’s organizations, including Community Care, for years have advised families to outfit their loved ones with identification bracelets so they can receive medical treatment and be returned home in the event they wander away. A 2004 Virginia Department of Emergency Management study suggested 31,000 patients wander annually, and only half will survive if they are not found within 24 hours.

Community Care CEO Mary Barnes thinks chip technology adds another layer of safety.

David Frankel remembers the time, about two years ago, when he woke up before dawn and found Ida missing. He soon discovered her outside in her nightgown, disoriented and lying in the wet grass.

“I was glad to get something that would help me find her if anything like that happened again,” said David Frankel, who decided to be chipped himself so people would know to look after his confused, vulnerable wife as well as himself if he ever was injured and unconscious.

Asked whether the recent Associated Press report has made him consider having his and Ida’s chips removed: “They’ve put these things into millions of dogs and cats,” Frankel said. “Mine is in my arm and it’s going to stay there. It will go into ground with me.”

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.