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Thursday, October 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

ID chip for humans wins approval by FDA

By Rob Stein
The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — A microchip that can be implanted under the skin to give doctors instant access to a patient's records won government approval yesterday, a step that could revolutionize medical care but is raising alarm among privacy advocates.

The tiny electronic capsule, the first such device to receive Food and Drug Administration approval, transmits a unique code to a special scanner that allows doctors to confirm a patient's identity and obtain detailed medical information from an accompanying database. Implantation takes about 20 minutes and leaves no stitches.

Applied Digital Solutions of Delray Beach, Fla., plans to market the VeriChip systems — the chips, scanners and the computerized database — to hospitals, doctors and patients as a way to improve care and avoid errors by ensuring that doctors know whom they are treating and their personal health details.

Doctors would scan patients like cans at a grocery store. The patient's medical record would pop up on a computer screen. Emergency-room doctors could scan unconscious car-accident victims to check their blood type, medications and make sure they have no drug allergies. Surgeons could scan patients in the operating room to guard against cutting into the wrong person. Chips, about the size of a grain of rice, could be implanted in Alzheimer's patients in case they get lost.

"In hospitals today, many deaths occur because people aren't able to communicate timely enough their medical information or because of wrong information," said Scott Silverman, the company's chief executive. "With VeriChip, you'll be able to have accurate information even if a patient can't talk."

Big Brother watching?

The approval was denounced by privacy advocates, who fear it could endanger patient privacy and mark a dangerous step toward a Big Brother future in which people will be tracked by the implants or be required to have them inserted for surveillance, identification and other purposes.

"It would obviously be possible to inject one of these into everyone," said Katherine Albrecht, who has campaigned against such devices. "In the post-9/11 world, we are already racing down the path to total surveillance. The only thing missing to clinch the deal has been the technology. This may fill that gap."

The VeriChip technology was developed to track livestock and has been implanted in about 1 million cats and dogs to identify lost or stolen pets. But the technology has a variety of other potential uses, and the company has sold about 7,000 chips for human use, about 1,000 of which have been implanted.

Mexico's attorney general announced in July he had one of the devices injected into his arm and those of about 160 of his lieutenants to control access to high-security offices. In bars in Amsterdam and Barcelona, patrons can have the devices implanted to allow them to enter exclusive areas and keep track of their tabs.

Other possible uses
 
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The company is investigating other applications, including using them as "electronic dog tags" for soldiers, creating "smart guns" with built-in scanners that ensure they could only be fired by someone with a corresponding implant in their arm, and enabling stores to verify a customer's identity before accepting a credit card.

"That same scanner in a Wal-Mart that is used to bar code your goods can be used to identify you when you present your credit card to make sure someone hasn't stolen it and your identity," Silverman said.

Spurred by South Americans seeking ways to trace kidnap victims, the company also has developed a device that allows satellites to pinpoint a chip's location but has no immediate plans to market that gadget.

The company hopes the FDA approval, however, will speed the proliferation of the chips for medical and other uses.

"We believe that this application is going to drive acceptance of the product," said Angela Fulcher, vice president, marketing and communications. "If you have a chronic disease where getting information to health-care providers quickly may mean life or death, that population is going to be more accepting of this technology."

Opponents argue the medical benefits are marginal, at best. Patients already can wear bracelets that alert doctors to their identities and special medical needs, and few medical errors actually are caused by patients being misidentified, they said. But the potential for abuse is great, they say.

"Over the long haul, any place where there's a surveillance camera today five or 10 years from now will have these ... readers. You'll walk into a 7-Eleven and they'll take your picture and scan your number," said Richard Smith, an Internet security and privacy consultant in Boston.

"If we start carrying these tags it makes a perfect way, either by private security companies or the government, to keep track of us."

Details on the surgical procedure were provided by The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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