Use of Implanted Patient-Data Chips Stirs Debate on Medicine vs. Privacy

Eleanor Cohen, 83, who received a microchip implant because of Alzheimer's disease, visits physician Jonathan Musher, an advocate of the device.
Eleanor Cohen, 83, who received a microchip implant because of Alzheimer's disease, visits physician Jonathan Musher, an advocate of the device. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

When Daniel Hickey's doctor suggested he have a microchip implanted under his skin to provide instant access to his computerized medical record, the 77-year-old retired naval officer immediately agreed.

"If you're unconscious and end up in the emergency room, they won't know anything about you," Hickey said. "With this, they can find out everything they need to know right away and treat you better."

Roxanne Fischer felt the same way, and she had one of the devices injected into the arm of her 83-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's disease. "I may not be available if she ends up in the emergency room. This gives me tremendous peace of mind," Fischer said.

The two D.C. residents are among just a handful of Americans who have had the tiny electronic VeriChip inserted since the government approved it two years ago. But the chip is being aggressively marketed by its manufacturer, which is targeting Washington to be the first metropolitan area with multiple hospitals equipped to read the device, a persuasive factor for Fischer and Hickey. Within weeks, the first hospital is expected to announce plans to start routinely scanning all emergency-room patients.

Some doctors are welcoming the technology as an exciting innovation that will speed care and prevent errors. But the concept alarms privacy advocates. They worry the devices could make it easier for unauthorized snoops to invade medical records. They also fear that the technology marks a dangerous step toward an Orwellian future in which people will be monitored using the chips or will be required to have them inserted for surveillance.

"It may seem innocuous, but the government and private corporations could use these devices to track people's movements," said Liz McIntyre, who co-wrote a book warning about the dangers of such radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. "It may sound paranoid, but this is bound to be abused."

The devices, originally developed to track livestock, have been implanted in more than 6 million cats and dogs to trace lost or stolen pets. For medical identification, the device -- a microchip and a copper antenna encased in a glass capsule about the size of a grain of rice -- is inserted, usually under the skin on the back of a patient's arm, in a quick, relatively painless procedure. Each unit, which lasts indefinitely, transmits a unique 16-digit number that can be read by a handheld scanner. The number is used to locate a medical record previously stored on a secure Web site.

Using the system, emergency-room doctors could scan unconscious or incoherent patients to quickly check their blood type and find out if they are taking any medications or have allergies or other medical conditions. Nurses could identify family members and determine whether patients are organ donors or have living wills. Surgeons could scan patients on the operating table to make sure they are working on the right person.

VeriChip Corp. of Delray Beach, Fla., is selling kits containing scanners and the large-bore needles used to insert the chips, and recommending that doctors charge patients about $200 each. The company has sold about 2,500 chips worldwide for use in people, and several hundred have been implanted, including about 100 in the United States, spokesman John Procter said. So far in the United States, however, most of the chips have been implanted into the company's own employees. Suspecting that many people are hesitant to get the chips until more emergency rooms are able to scan them, the company has begun giving scanners to hospitals for free, Procter said.

Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey became the first hospital to begin routinely scanning emergency-room patients last summer, and about a dozen people in that area have now been "chipped," Procter said. About 80 other hospitals nationwide have agreed to follow, a number the company hopes will reach 200 by the end of the year.

Many of the hospitals, including three in the Washington area, have received scanners and started training their emergency-room staffs in their use, he said. Procter declined to name the hospitals until they formally announce their plans.

One area doctor has begun implanting the chips.

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