Med school CIO tests RFID for patients

An RFID chip the size of two grains of rice and encased in a glass container was implanted in back of the right arm near the elbow of John Halamka, CIO of Harvard Medical School, just before Christmas.

The chip, inserted with a needle in a five-minute procedure, contains a medical identifier that when scanned by a reader can direct a physician or nurse to his medical records housed at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Halamka, 42, is testing the use of the technology for its potential to help health workers to gain critical medical information about an unresponsive patient. Halamka, for example, an avid mountain and ice climber, noted, "If I fall and I am not responsive, wouldn't it be extraordinarily helpful for the people who rescue me to know who I am and my medical history?"

While he said he is not advocating that people get injected with RFID chips, Halamka decided to test it so he could describe the experience to patients who choose to take the same route.

He also noted that the RFID chip -- which will last 100 years -- doesn't raise privacy concerns since it doesn't contain medical records, only an identifying number pointing to the records. "There is no way just from reading my tag for a merchant to know who I am. It is just going to be a number," he said.

Halamka's chip comes from VeriChip, and was cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for medical use in October.

Roger Kay, an analyst at IDC, said the chip in Halamka is on the bleeding edge of RFID tags because the technology is being used today mainly by retailers and for supply chain management to tag product pallets. Kay also noted that the infrastructure to support the use of RFID tags in patients -- mainly scanners -- is not widespread enough to make it useful.

However, he did note that the cost of the chips is dropping for manufacturing applications, and the cost reductions may prompt more uses in people.

"The big barrier is to get individuals to go for the implant," he said. "The cost of the individual chips is coming way down to the point where it becomes practical to have chips on individual items including people."

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