Medical RFID Tagging Could Save Lives

Opinion: Whether providing a primary diagnosis or identifying a medical appliance that's been installed in a patient, RFID chips in the medical field could save lives when used properly.

The criticism of human RFID tagging that Ive been seeing sometimes misses the point, with potentially deadly results. This is not simply a human version of the chips Ive had injected into the scruffs of both of my cats necks. I did this after a third cat lost its collar and ran away, never to be found.

My expectation is that if Larry or Mo are ever separated from me that someone at a shelter or vets office will scan for the chip, contact the Companion Animal Registry and give me a call. This is not what I expect to happen with people.

In fact, given the easy comparison between such chips and the biblical "mark of the beast," its hard for me to imagine that many Americans will willingly present themselves for "chipping" even if the human cost, now $150 to $200, should fall to the $40 I paid for each of the animals chipping procedures. (The injection process, I should note, uses a large-bore syringe and was not painless, also likely to reduce human interest.)

Where I do see RFID technology making a difference for humans is in surgery, where chips can be implanted to identify the specific medical appliance thats been installed in a patient.

Heres an example: You have a pacemaker and there has been a recall of pacemakers (its happened), and no one can find the serial number of the pacemaker installed in your chest. Or maybe the device has just gone a bit haywire. Wouldnt it be great to have an RFID reader giving doctors immediate access to information about the device before they had to resort to guesses or scalpels?

You say your doctor wouldnt lose such important records, but how quickly could an emergency-room doc in someplace far away access the information in your distant medical chart? You say this is what plastic ID cards and Medic-Alert bracelets are for, but both are easily lost or simply not worn (by the patient), overlooked (by medical personnel), or removed and accidentally discarded (at the hospital).

/zimages/2/28571.gifTo read an opposing view on human RFID tagging, click here.

If all medical devices came with RFID, the scanning process would become an automatic part of hospital admission and perhaps even an ambulance ride. In these cases, RFID would primarily identify the implanted devices and only secondarily provide patient identification.

But there might be occasions when patient ID or quick diagnosis would be the primary use.

For example, there may be cases when it makes sense to insert an RFID chip as a replacement for other alerting mechanisms when patient compliance (carrying/wearing the medical ID) might be poor. Thats not you and me, of course, but lots of patients who ought to wear a Medic-Alert-type bracelet dont, either because they are in denial, dont find them aesthetically pleasing (another form of denial) or simply wish to avoid being seen as a "sick person" by the world at large (still another form of denial).

An example of this is a young woman I know who suffers from asthma so severe that she has had to be intubated twice and expects to be intubated in the future. By refusing to wear medical ID, she is essentially counting on medical personnel "figuring out" whats wrong with her before her airway closes permanently and she dies.

If this were my minor child and she refused to wear medical ID, Id have an RFID chip implanted so quick she wouldnt know what had happened to her, assuming that readers were widely available in the field. But since this is only a friend and shes an adult, I am simply ordering her a bracelet and praying shell wear it just to keep me happy.

For patients like this, the chip could be encoded not with an ID number but with a primary diagnosis, giving emergency workers a potentially life-saving "head start" in making treatment decisions.

/zimages/2/28571.gifA Microsoft RFID customer expects a quick return on its investment. Click here to read more.

Similarly, a developmentally delayed or Alzheimers patient given to frequent unaccompanied "field trips" away from home or a care facility might be an excellent candidate for chipping, again making human RFID technology a lifesaver.

You could, of course, accomplish much the same thing with biometrics. But getting a retinal or fingerprint scan from an unconscious or uncooperative patient would likely be much more difficult that "wanding" them with an RFID reader. And biometrics would still have to be matched to a database, where RFID could present specific information at the patients side.

Yes, I know there are all kinds of civil liberties issues here, but in each of the cases Ive discussed, either the patient or a legal guardian would make the implant decision. Medical RFID is only for the patients who need it. But like so many other medical technologies, it can save lives when used properly. Contributing Editor David Coursey is a Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician (NREMT-B) and trained as a search-and-rescue team member in San Mateo County, Calif.

/zimages/2/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms Health Care Center at for the latest news, views and analysis of technologys impact on health care.