Saturday, October 16, 2004

May I Scan the Bar Code Embedded in Your Arm?

May I scan the bar code in your arm?
By HELEN BRANSWELL
Canadian Press
POSTED AT 6:34 AM EDT
Thursday, Oct 14, 2004

Forget about temperature-taking and blood-pressure checking. In the bright, near future, the first step for people seeking medical care may be to have their bicep read by an electronic scanner seeking data stored on an implanted chip.
A Florida company, Applied Digital Solutions, announced yesterday it had received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to market in that country an implantable device known as a VeriChip.
The grain-of-rice-sized chip contains a unique numeric identifier that hospitals and doctors offices could scan to gain Internet access to an individual's medical records. In the initial rollout, the company will target people with chronic health problems -- and complicated medical records and needs -- as well as patients with cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.
The technology has already gained acceptance in Canada and the United States among pet owners and livestock producers who use it to trace animals. But are people really ready to have bar codes implanted under their skin?
Applied Digital's chairman Scott Silverman thinks so. The company has not yet applied for permission to market the product for people in Canada, but Mr. Silverman sees global potential.
"Obviously, this is an application and a product that we intend to market worldwide," he said during a conference call when asked if his company will try to crack the Canadian market.
The beauty of the chip, Mr. Silverman told journalists and investment analysts, is that it has multiple applications.
Some people use it to link their bodies to their medical records. Some organizations, including the office of Mexico's attorney-general, use it as an implanted smart card that gains workers access to high-security facilities. Some people use it to keep track of cows.
But cows don't have privacy concerns. And people who worry about human privacy issues say that while the concept has merit, the device's use would need to be carefully regulated.
Medical ethicist Margaret Somerville said she doesn't object to the devices on principle, but could see how they could be abused.
If anyone could get their hands on one of the company's scanners, security would be easily breached, said Ms. Somerville, founding director of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.
"Let's assume your [spouse] wants to know if you've been having sex with somebody" and have picked up a sexually transmitted disease, she said. "Could you have a private investigator scan the person without them knowing it and send that off and find out? They're going to have to have safeguards to prevent things like that."
Likewise, the use of the Internet to access medical data could open the door to problems, said Dr. Jeff Blackmer, director of ethics for the Canadian Medical Association. "Kids on the Internet are constantly hacking into sites," he pointed out. Still, it's not hard to see the appeal of a tiny device -- implanted during an outpatient visit using a syringe -- that could allow doctors to determine the name, contact information, drug allergies or special medical needs of an unconscious patient.
"You can think of good things," Ms. Somerville agreed. "But you'd have to make sure that it wasn't abused. And you'd have to make sure it was under the control of the person."