RFID EMR Pioneer Says “RIP”

When Harvard Medical School and CareGroup CIO Dr. John Halamka agreed to place his medical  information on an RFID chip and have it implanted it in his arm, he triggered an instant global spotlight on this unusual form of portable electronic medical record. The decision, made in December 2004 and disclosed in early 2005, captured worldwide attention from places a diverse as Fox News, the BBC and the New England Journal of Medicine (where Halamka contributed a commentary ).

As recently as 2007, a debate over chip privacy and safety versus having critical medical data instantly at hand (as it were) was featured in a PLoS Medicine exchange.  In it, Halamka asserted, “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.”

Two years later, Halamka’s chip remains under his skin but he’s ready to turn over the idea that he’s a trendsetter to the undertaker. The technology “has been adopted by no one,” Halamka told me at a meeting on Patient-Centered Computing sponsored by Partners HealthCare’s Center on Information Technology Leadership. “As a technology it’s dead. Use the network, use the cloud to store your personal health records. Or in a pinch, use a USB drive. But the implanted RFID chip is not as a society where we’re going.”

A spokeswoman for Delray Beach, FL-based VeriChip Corp., maker of the FDA-approved device, responded, “We are currently supporting our existing partners, members and healthcare facilities.” The company, which sells implantable chips for security and other purposes, has been through ownership and management changes and is “determining our
strategic direction,” the spokeswoman said.

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21 replies »

  1. RFID is a great technology, but can easily infringe upon our personal freedoms and security. EMRs are a great tool for both paitents and doctors and would absolutely streamline our healthcare systems. But RFID, is going too far…

  2. RFID is a great technology, but can easily infringe upon our personal freedoms and security. EMRs are a great tool for both paitents and doctors and would absolutely streamline our healthcare systems. But RFID, is going too far…

  3. It has long been realized that, compared to paper-based records, electronic record systems provide many advantages in the healthcare environment, including increased availability, improved legibility, long-term accessibility.therefore,it must be taken seriously.

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  5. “…Use the network, use the cloud to store your personal health records. Or in a pinch, use a USB drive.”
    Exactly. Once there is the ability to uniquely identify a someone, then there is no need to transport their medical data around with them.
    The internet and cloud computing allows that data to be accessible anywhere it is needed.

  6. Chris,
    That’s how the Verichip system works now and has always worked. It only includes a code number that the ER folks scan, which provides them access to that person’s health record. But they can’t access it without their own username and password to get into the Verichip database. Check out a full article on how it works at http://www.hcplive.com/mdnglive/webexclusives/verichip.
    Ashame that it’s not catching on. Cell phones do get lost, and although most people always have one on them, there would have to be some universal system so that someone in an ER would know how to access that person’s records using their phone. And what privacy issues does that raise when an ER nurse is rooting around on someone’s phone to try to find a PHR?

  7. Stupid question; how does one update them once they are implanted?
    I do like Chris’ idea to use them for patient ID. Seriously, this could be invaluable for hospitals – think of meds and blood transfusions….

  8. Chris, that’s a wicked spiffy idea. (“Wicked” in the sense of “wicked cool,” as we say in Bahston.)
    btw, Lynn, my wife’s a veterinarian and has long been in the biz of implanting Avid chips in pets. It works.
    Hmmm, just thinking… she’s never asked ME to have one implanted. I wonder if she’s giving me a message…

  9. Perhaps the future is a combination of both technologies: the RFID chip is used to securely identify the patient and contains the key to unlock their data from the cloud. The data in the cloud can’t be used without the key (or without the patient explicitly authorizing its use) and the chip in the patient doesn’t have to carry data in a billion different formats to be useful.

  10. Well if he gets lost, a scan by the Vet will hopefully get him back to his owner.

  11. I too suspect John was/is just ahead of his time.
    My day-job industry, software delivered over the Web, is all the rage right now. (Specifically we do appointment systems but I’m talking about the underlying technology.) Some call it Cloud Computing, some call it SaaS (software as a service). Ten years ago it was called ASP, and it died. Absolutely the right idea, but ahead of its time.
    Fwiw, my gut tells me we are *certainly* going to end up literally carrying our medical information in some machine-readable form. But that will happen once we can be sure it’s accurate. 🙂

  12. If we were in Colombia or Iraq now, we’d be having an entirely different conversation about RFID.
    There, you’ll find growing popularity for implants as a defense against kidnapping. RFID becomes your own personal Lo-Jack in case you’re taken hostage.
    I think the field of wearable (or implantable) electronics is full of potential that we have yet to tap. Let’s give John Halamka credit for being forward-thinking. Let’s also be a bit ashamed of how long it’s taken us to realize this technology’s potential.

  13. People lose cell phones so we’re not going to put personal health info in them. The RFID was a “lost cattle” application, not smart enough for humans. The logical personal data storage option will be something like HP’s Memory Spot, which has a far higher data transfer rate and will store encryption code and operating instructions. I think we’ll wear our personal health data, rather than store it in the cloud. Wired Magazine had an interesting feature on the jewelry options for storing our genetic info a few years ago.

  14. Well, he was a man ahead of his time. If the implanted RFID EMR scheme had become widespread (unlikely), he would have been “the first.” As it is, it looks like a bizarre science experiment that generated some publicity but is now just, well, bizarre…