Tanya Talaga – The Star.com August 14, 2007
Imagine a microchip the size of a grain of rice, implanted under your skin, that doctors can scan in order to retrieve your medical information.
The American Medical Association has endorsed the use of implantable microchips to help reduce medical errors and adverse drug reactions.
It said the chips may help to identify patients, "thereby improving the safety and efficiency of patient care," reports the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal
But the AMA's policy recommendation was filled with cautions, since the security of the microchips hasn't been established. Some observers fear the potential for loss of privacy and misuse of medical records might outweigh the benefits.
In Canada, the technology is unregulated as a medical device, according to Health Canada. But Canadian doctors, ethicists and critics wonder if it could come here.
"It's a very real possibility," said Teresa Scassa, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and technology expert.
"The implantable medical chips are being looked at very seriously by hospitals and other health-care facilities."
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has already approved a microchip – with limited storage and a transmission range of a few metres – that contains basic information, such as the presence of a chronic disease or pacemaker, according to the CMAJ.
Toronto critical-care surgeon Dr. Talat Chughtai said that saving lives "trumps everything else."
Doctors have no way of knowing the medical history of a patient wheeled into the emergency ward if they are alone and unable to speak.
"(If) I'm there with a patient (in the emergency ward) at 2 a.m. who can't tell me what they have ...," says Chughtai.
"In an acute case, this could help save a patient's life."
However, the AMA's policy recommendation, which came out in June, contains cautions about security and says the medical profession should monitor the chip's efficacy, and advises more studies.
The radio frequency identification (known as RFID) chips aren't meant to contain a patient's personal medical record.
Instead, the implant – also called a "tag" or transponder – contains an identification number that can be detected by a radio frequency reader and entered into a hospital's database to access a patient's information.
The microchips or tags can be inserted under the skin with a needle.
There are privacy concerns about access to medical information, Scassa said.
But it depends on how they're used. Someone could get information from a chip and "use it to access your medical records within the system," for instance, she said.
"It is also possible to have chips that contain more ... specific information, and ... it is possible for someone to crack or hack into that information. There are security risks for both kinds."
Potential medical risks include migration under the skin, or the formation of tissue bumps, like cysts, around the tag, she added.
Canadian examples of RFID already in use include automatic toll passes on highways such as the 407. Scassa predicts new uses will continue to pop up in everyday life.
"We do that in my dog, you know," said patient safety expert Ross Baker, a University of Toronto professor of health policy, management and evaluation.
"Veterinarians recommend it. If the pet is lost you can recover it."
But, said Baker, while health-care providers need a strategy to ensure proper identification of patients, "this seems an extreme way to do it.”
Last updated 19/08/2007