CIO Tests Embedded RFID Chip

The CIO of the Harvard Medical School said he became a radio-signal guinea pig so he could properly evaluate the technology.

As an emergency medicine physician, Dr. John D. Halamka immediately saw the life-saving potential of embedding tiny wireless RFID (radio-frequency identification) devices in people. As the CIO of the Harvard Medical School, he was naturally skeptical of such devices and wanted to test them thoroughly before recommending their adoption.

As a physician CIO, he knew that there would be risks inserting any foreign object into a human being and that the body might interfere with the devices functioning and that the device could interfere with the bodys functioning.

Therefore, Halamka said he did the only reasonable move: He offered himself as a radio-signal guinea pig and got a first-hand experience of having an embedded transmitter.

"Im not necessarily an advocate, but as a CIO and a physician, I think its important for me to evaluate it fully," Halamka said in an interview. "Im just experimenting with the technology. I think RFID now is at the peak of the hype curve. It has great promise, but it will require a bit of time."

/zimages/4/28571.gifTo read more about the FDAs approval of injected RFID chips, click here.

RFID technology is a subject of extreme interest to retailers, consumer goods manufacturers, law enforcement and the medical communities, but it has been beset by reports of inaccurate read rates and interference from other devices. The technology also has been the subject of privacy concerns.

Halamkas experiment is intended to see how the variables of the human body affect the devices functioning and its read rate and whether RFID can be a practical, safe and privacy-respecting technology in todays hospitals.

One medical benefit that Halamka sees is in dealing with nonresponsive patients—perhaps an unconscious car accident victim—who have particular medical issues that the physician needs to know.

The chip itself is a passive RFID device that merely transmits a 16-digit numeric identifier. Properly credentialed emergency room staff could access a secure Web site that would allow them to identify him and access relevant medical records, he said.

/zimages/4/28571.gifTo read about the FDAs plans to fight counterfeit drugs with RFID, click here.

Another possibility is medical error reductions. Halamka painted a scenario where a hospitalized patient has an embedded RFID tag. All medication bottles would also have RFID tags, as would the identification tags worn by nurses and doctors.

"What if a nurse walks into your room with the wrong medication?" he asked. With the triple RFID scenario he painted, the chart information could immediately flag that the medication about to be administered was incorrect.

Although its more intrusive, the RFID approach would work a lot better than having a tag attached to todays typical hospital patient plastic wristband, he said, as those tags can be lost or damaged.

Next Page: How the RFID chip is implanted and the real world read rate results.