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Implantable chips bear promise, but privacy standards needed

BOSTON Radio frequency identification (RFID) chips implanted into human beings hold the promise of improving patient care, particularly in emergency settings, but only after privacy questions are addressed, according to a Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) physician who has a chip implanted in his arm.

Writing in the July 28 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, John Halamka, MD, chief information officer at BIDMC and Harvard Medical School and an emergency room physician, says the chip implanted in his upper right arm would allow anyone with a handheld RFID reader to scan his arm and obtain his 16-digit medical identifier.

The chip, which consists of several small components encased in an unbreakable glass capsule, was implanted in his arm in December 2004 with only a local anesthetic. Any authorized health care worker can visit a secure web site hosted by the chip manufacturer and retrieve information about his identity, and that of his primary care physician, who could provide medical history details.

Recalling his experience as an emergency medicine resident who could spend hours trying to determine the identify of John or Jane Doe patient, Halamka believes properly encrypted technology could prove to be a boon in helping to avoid unwanted medical interventions. "For patients with Alzheimer's disease who wander away from home, an identifier that enables caregivers to identify non-verbal or confused patients and determine their health care preferences could be very desirable," he says.

But a number of significant legal, ethical and technological hurdles need to be overcome first.

"Since my chip contains only my medical identifier, unauthorized reading would not disclose health information," says Halamka. "But nothing is simple," noting current technology and lack of specific privacy policy could enable spammers to track him in a manner similar to computer "spyware" that infests computers after visits to certain Int
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Contact: Jerry Berger
jberger@bidmc.harvard.edu
617-667-7308
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
27-Jul-2005


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