Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Chip in My Shoulder

I'm often asked about the RFID chip containing my medical records which is implanted in my right arm.

As a physician and chief information officer, I felt qualified to evaluate the medical, legal, moral, and privacy aspects of the device. After using the device for three years, I am not an evangelist for implanted RFID, but I believe it can be valuable for some patients who understand the risks and benefits. My implantation process in December 2004 was simple—a five minute office procedure, which included disinfection of the implant site on my upper right arm, a few cubic centimeters of lidocaine, and insertion of the injector into my subcutaneous fascia. I did not experience pain, bleeding, or any post-procedure infection. The implant is not palpable, does not migrate, and has no physical side effects such as itching, irritation, or changes in skin appearance. The RFID device does not impede my activities; even while rock or ice climbing I have hit the implant site many times without any problems. The device is undetectable by airport security metal detectors and hand scanners.

One possible side effect is that my RFID device can be scanned by retail security systems using 134.2 kHz RFID technology, the frequency of my implant. I have had experiences at Home Depot and Best Buy where my device seemed to set off the anti-theft systems. My personal data are not readable by such systems, but they may be able to detect the presence of an implanted RFID tag.

Given my experience, what are the risks and benefits? The medical risks of any implant are infection, pain, keloid formation at the puncture site, and reaction to the local anesthetic. There are quite a range of nonmedical risks. After my implant, I received many e-mails saying that I had become a “Borg” and had lost some of my humanity because I was now a hybrid human/machine. Some e-mails even referred to the Book of Revelation, noting that I now carried the number of the Beast. Thus, chip carriers have a risk of being social outcasts.

The chip holds a static and unencrypted 16 digit number, which is used to point to a Web site containing personal health record data. The Web site requires a username and password, ensuring appropriate security. It is conceivablethat a person on a subway could scan a patient’s number without their knowledge and steal their medical identity by creating an identical chip and implanting it. This is a very theoretical risk because hospitals are not widely using implanted RFID chips as a means of identification. If the implanted chip were used for security purposes, such as opening a door to a secure area, the person who scanned the patient on the subway could replay the RFID signal and gain access to the secure area. Again, this is purely theoretical since implanted RFID devices are not often used as security authenticators.

If these are the potential risks, what are the benefits? Since we have no universal health identifier in the US, there is no simple way to uniquely identify a patient at all sites of care. The result is a fractured medical record scattered in inpatient, outpatient, laboratory, pharmacy, and emergency department sites. The implanted RFID devices enable patients to establish health care identities and become the stewards of their own data. The patient can assemble a reconciled medication list, a complete problem list, and a list of diagnostic study results, and then apply personal privacy preferences—for example,deleting information about mental health, HIV, or substance abuse. This patient-controlled record is available to treating clinicians in the case of emergency via the implanted device.

It is a personal choice whether or not to be fitted with an RFID device, but for some patients such a record has value. For example, such devices may be particularly helpful for a patient with Alzheimer disease who cannot give a history, a patient prone to syncope who may not be initially conscious during an emergency department visit, or a very active person who engages in extreme sports activities and could be noncommunicative due to injury.

I believe that in the near future, patients will own their medical records and be the stewards of their own health care data. Implantation of RFID devices is one tool, appropriate for some patients based on their personal analysis of risks and benefits, that can empower patients by serving as a source of identity and a link to a personal health record when the patient cannot otherwise communicate.


Matt said...

Very bold of you to test such a product on yourself. Here in Louisiana we now know how important medical records, their portability, and their retrieval are. After Katrina people were spread so far with no access to their records, and most records were destroyed.

Have you ever thought about the implanted magnet in the finger tip? I hear you almost gain a 6th sense with one of those, meaning you can feel magnetic fields and such as the magnet in your finger tip moves and reacts to fields. It was even said you can trace phone wires in the walls with just your hand.

Just an interesting thought.

Lonzo said...

Excellent blog post. I have a question about RFID in healthcare. To preface my question, I am not going to talk about how you are a "Borg" or use the book of Revelation. I am a big fan of RFID. I am actually COMPTia RFID+ certified and work for the College of Nursing at Wright State.

I was wonder what state has the most technological advancement in the healthcare industry, specifically dealing with RFID? Also, besides passion and knowledge of RFID, what other qualifications do you feel are necessary for working with RFID in the healthcare industry?

Thank You For Your Time,

gRace said...

wow, very interesting experience.
i would just love to know how you decided on the location of your device.. why chose your arm? why not on your hand? RFID truly is fascinating dont you think?

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