Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Implantable Chip Provides Medical Data

Medical Info Close At Hand
Mark Hazlin

NEW YORK - Sometimes the one thing most needed in a medical emergency is information: information about a patient's medical history, medications they may be taking, allergies, etc.

Someday there will be an integrated, nationwide electronic health information system to make all this information available to doctors when needed. Failing that, there are steps that individuals can now take to have their medical information handy in the event of an emergency.

The proliferation of USB keychain drives has made it possible to store personal medical profiles on a small device that can be used at doctors' offices or in emergency situations. Other technologies, such as radio frequency identification chips that can be attached to bracelets, are also being used in nursing homes and hospitals to identify patients.

An even more radical and controversial technique is to inject an RFID chip under the skin, but that application is still on the horizon. The Food and Drug Administration is in the process of reviewing such a device, made by VeriChip, a wholly owned subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions. An electronic scanner reads the chip, implanted in the right tricep, to get verification numbers, which are then used to access medical information stored in an Internet-accessible registry.

In the meantime, privately-held Med-InfoChip, based in Boynton Beach, Fla., recently began offering a USB drive that stores personal medical histories. The drives are not designed to replace the files in a doctor's office, but are simply a way for patients to centralize and digitize their records from their personal computer.

Dr. Carl Franzblau, associate dean of Graduate Medical Sciences and chairman of the department of biochemistry at Boston University, developed the Med-InfoChip after becoming frustrated with having to fill out forms every time he went to a new doctor.

"The fact that you have all your information in one place should make for better accuracy. Not perfect but better," says Dr. Franzblau.

The chip is easy to use, and it plugs into the USB port on most desktops or laptop PCs manufactured in the last five years. Once inserted, a pop-up window guides you through the press of filling in information ranging from name and date of birth to known allergies and past medical conditions. It can even store digital images, such as X rays, electrocardiograms, photos or birth certificates.

Patients can update their information after every visit and print out hard copies of their records. The drive comes completely unencrypted so paramedics and other emergency medical personnel can access the information. That fact could make for a double-edged sword: If the drive is lost or stolen, the files are unprotected from the eyes of whomever may find it.

"I think it would make more sense to have some kind of security so that basically only hospitals and physicians will be able to read it," says Steven Fox, a lawyer at PepperHamilton LLP who leads the firm's health care informatics initiative.

The software that runs on the device is based on a FileMaker Pro application and, as a result, is somewhat unprofessional looking. But, it is extremely easy to use and navigate.

At 64 megabytes, the Med-InfoChip has relatively low storage capacity, but is plenty for its purpose. But, if you already carry a USB drive on your key chain, why not just have one larger one that handles multiple tasks?

The drive costs $69, or $99 for the two-person version, and is available only on the Med-InfoChip Web site.

While some privacy experts have expressed concern about the proliferation of electronic personal information, an estimated 98,000 deaths are attributed to medical errors every year. Getting accurate information about allergies, prescriptions or past medical conditions in the hands of medical staff might be a way to reduce those numbers.

"That kind of patient information is like gold to us," says Dr. Richard Westfal, associate director of emergency services at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan.