A microchip that can be implanted under the skin to give doctors instant access to a patient's records yesterday won government approval, a step that could transform medical care but is raising alarm among privacy advocates.
The tiny electronic capsule, the first such device to receive Food and Drug Administration approval, transmits a unique code to a scanner that allows doctors to confirm a patient's identity and obtain detailed medical information from an accompanying database.
Applied Digital Solutions Inc. of Delray Beach, Fla., plans to market the VeriChip systems -- the chips, scanners and computerized database -- to hospitals, doctors and patients as a way to improve care and avoid errors by ensuring that doctors know whom they are treating and the patient's personal health details.
Doctors would scan patients like cans of soup at a grocery store. Instead of the price, the patient's medical record would pop up on a computer screen. Emergency room doctors could scan unconscious car accident victims to check their blood type and medications and make sure they have no drug allergies. Surgeons could scan patients in the operating room to guard against cutting into the wrong person. Chips could be implanted in Alzheimer's patients in case they get lost.
"In hospitals today, many deaths occur because people aren't able to communicate timely enough their medical information or because of wrong information," said Scott Silverman, the company's chief executive. "With VeriChip, you'll be able to have accurate information even if a patient can't talk. It's a way to modernize our antiquated system of medical records."
The approval was immediately denounced by privacy advocates, who fear it could endanger patient privacy and mark a dangerous step toward a Big Brother future in which people will be tracked by the implants or required to have them inserted for surveillance, identification and other purposes.
"Once the technology is out there and is available, it raises the very real possibility that people in a position to require or demand it will begin to do that," said Katherine Albrecht, who has campaigned against such devices. "It would obviously be possible to inject one of these into everyone. In the post-9/11 world, we are already racing down the path to total surveillance. The only thing missing to clinch the deal has been the technology. This may fill that gap."
The VeriChip technology was developed to track livestock and has been implanted in about 1 million cats and dogs to identify lost or stolen house pets. But the technology has a variety of other potential uses, and the company has already sold about 7,000 chips for human use, about 1,000 of which have been implanted.
Mexico's attorney general announced in July that he had one of the devices injected into his arm, as had about 160 of his lieutenants, to control access to high-security offices. In bars in Amsterdam and Barcelona, patrons can have the chips implanted to allow them to enter exclusive areas and keep track of their tabs.
The company is investigating other applications, including using the chips as "electronic dog tags" for soldiers, creating "smart guns" with built-in scanners that ensure they can be fired only by someone with a corresponding implant, and enabling stores to verify a customer's identity before accepting a credit card.