But so far, analysts remain largely skeptical that the technology will have any substantial impact yet for patients. Rather than sparking a technological revolution, it seems the RFID (radio frequency identification) chip may be drawing attention to flaws in the existing health IT infrastructure.
"The reaction to it is out of proportion," said Mark Leavitt, medical director at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. "Theres more controversy than there needs to be. Its just a higher-tech version of the medical ID bracelet."
Leavitt was also skeptical that demand would be strong, given that the most useful situation would involve the absence of other identifying material and the inability for communication with the patient. Veterinary applications to help identify cats and dogs are already widespread. "Its great for dogs because dogs cant talk," Leavitt said.
So far, the privacy concerns have generated considerable attention. With the identification number accessible via the chip, health care providers would have access to patient medical records. Conceivably, that number could let anyone gain access to health records.
But the use of a unique identifier can help ensure that the correct and complete patient information is obtained. So far, a unique identifier is not intended to be a part of a national electronic medical record initiative that is targeted for completion within the next decade.
The medical record identification system usually used, known as enterprise master person, employs about six points of information such as address, phone number, mothers maiden name and Social Security number to confirm patient identity. One difficulty with this system is that often multiple records exist simultaneously for the same person, meaning that any given record is likely not accurate or complete.
Applied Digital Solutions has obviated the need for a comprehensive medical record from a health care provider by placing the burden upon the patient instead.
But analysts said this stop-gap approach, while allowing for the initial launch of this technology, also further exposes the need for an easily and universally identifiable health record. "Theres a real pressing need with the electronic health record for a unique identifier," said John Quinn, vice president and chief technology officer at IT consultancy Capgemini.
Quinn said he is skeptical that "most people would be interested in being tagged with something like out of the Borg from Star Trek." He dismisses some of the privacy fears as irrelevant but raises the specter of potential issues down the road.
Currently, readers that detect the number on the chip are effective only within a few feet. But Quinn argues that in the future, reader devices are likely to improve substantially, perhaps to the point of allowing tracking of a particular person.
Another concern voiced by analysts is that the usefulness of this product is simply too low and may simply serve to further muddy the health IT debate without offering much of a contribution.
"I almost wish they would not have released this in a way," said Scott Tiazkun, health care IT program manager with market research firm IDC. "They should have held off and waited to include actual information on the chip, increasing the functionality of the device to prove how important the technology can be."
Still, Tiazkun said he is optimistic that the implantable chip, like keychain products that carry a portable electronic medical record, may have a market among people with serious medical issues. "Privacy concerns play well in other areas besides health care," he said. "But when youre talking about life and death, I dont think privacy stands in the way."