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Medical Bar Code Implant May Not Be Worth the Trouble

Opinion: Aside from the discomfort (aka pain), cost and the concerns over privacy, there are many other implementation snafus with the medical RFID chip just approved by the FDA.Call me a cynic, but I dont think a rice-sized RFID chip above my elbow is going to save my life, or anyone elses. At least not anytime soon.

The system comes from Applied Digital Solutions and three publications put the Food and Drug Administrations approval of this device on their front pages, packed with dueling quotes over its medical benefits and privacy concerns.

However, Im not so sure theres much medical benefit to be had. There are plenty of questions to be answered.

First off, the chip doesnt contain any medical information, something that was missed by many accounts, especially on television. It contains a 16-digit code that can be read by a $650 scanner—something that a health care provider may or may not have. These scanners are hooked into software that can pull up medical information, as specified by the patient.

Based on the actual information provided to the care giver, the RFID product is much the same as lower-tech and vastly-cheaper products such as alert bracelets or plastic cards that inform emergency personnel to contact an information center. While the chip may be able to provide information faster, the speed only comes if medical providers have all the right equipment in working order. The other systems are almost universally accessible, and again, they cost much less.

Getting the chip inserted costs between $150 and $200, according a report. After that, the Global VeriChip Subscriber Registry service costs $9.95 a month, billed to a subscribers credit card. Subscriptions for similar low-tech services cost less than a third of this price.

As far as I can tell, the VeriChip service suffers from the exact same problem that the low tech versions do: patients will be unwilling to pay for them, and providers wont trust that patients will update their information.


A record in the VeriChip database might not reflect that a patient filled a new prescription unless the patient went online to update it. Also, if the patient reacted badly to that new medication, medical personnel couldnt deduce it by scanning the chip. Only the most sophisticated, up-to-date medical records could provide such information.

Of course, patient identification can be problematic even in non-emergency situations, said. Lorraine Fernandes, senior VP of Healthcare Practice at Initiate Systems, a Chicago data integration company.

For example, a caregiver might bring a young child to a health care setting but not know that his or her last name is different from the mothers. Different patients in a database might have the same name, or one person could be in the database under different names.


Increasingly, people going to a hospital will purposely misidentify themselves , Fernandes said, pretending to be a relative or friend who has health insurance.

Yet, the chip could be useful in those situations, she said, adding that the RFID method is just another tool in the toolkit, and probably not a power tool.

"I just view it as one more way of facilitating patient identification. Some other companies use biometric identification," she said.

Of course, even that degree of usefulness assumes that the chip and the scanner and the database all work.

For non-emergency situations, other patient identification systems have the advantage that they can be integrated into a hospitals information infrastructure. In fact some identification management systems track not just patients but personnel and equipment as well.

At its best, the chip will be just another way to communicate information, and that information could be less complete than a record residing with a health care provider. The chip likely wont spark a revolution, unless that revolution is in privacy infringement.

Maybe Im wrong. Perhaps the solution is much simpler or the company much more sophisticated than I suspect. Still, I dont anticipate handing over $200 and rolling up my sleeve anytime soon. M.L. Baker writes about health and biotechnology IT for E-mail her at

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