Death by Complexity? The Apparent Demise of Implantable Medical Chips

In October 2004 the FDA approved implantable RFID chips for the purpose of giving health care providers access to a patient’s medical information.  Public debates about patient privacy quickly followed and in 2007 the AMA updated its code of ethics to address the use of medical chips.

When news about possible links to cancer began to surface as well,  the stock for VERICHIP CORP (NASDAQ: CHIP), the maker of the implants, began its slide from double digit dollar levels into the realm of penny stocks. It seems little wonder then, when The Health Care Blog recently reported that one of the chip pioneers is ready to sign off.

Yet, Data Management Issues Play a Major Role As Well

The cancer scare and the specter of big brother, nosy neigbors or more nefarious uses probably present the biggest hurdles to adoption.  They make for good headlines and everyone can relate to them on some level.

Even if we set these issues aside, the medical chip still faces significant problems.  As we wrote back in 2004, setting up a system that makes medical information available via an RFID chip presents significant logistical challenges:

“… in order for the life-saving-promise to work, a couple of things have to be in place:

  1. a repository that contains all critical medical information relating to the patient
  2. the information in that repository has to be up-to-date and correct
  3. someone has to provide information to the repository
  4. medical personnel needs to have a scanner that can read the chip and access the information
  5. the “critical” information has to have been collected in the first place

Just imagine what’s necessary to put all these things in place: someone has to create an electronic version of the data, someone has to be in charge of the information to make sure it’s accurate and up to date, there has to be a process for correcting and updating information, all hospitals and emergency responders have to be equipped with scanners, security features and processes have to be added to prevent unauthorized access, and that’s just the tip of the ice berg.”

Data management issues induce yawns in many people, but they are at the core of the bottom line decisions that businesses have to make every day: at some point the investment has to pay for itself.  Solving these challenges requires significant funds and resources.  The current push to save health care costs via eMR systems may just provide the booster shot that’s needed.  With this in mind, it seems likely that the RFID idea is not dead, but will find a different life as part of a smart card.

Additional Reading:

AMA: New ethics policy

Recommendations adopted from reports presented at 2007 Annual House of Delegates Meeting (June A-07):

Chip Implants Linked to Animal Tumors

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 8, 2007; 2:04 PM

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