Implanted Medical Information

The American Medical Associationâ''s (AMA) Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs reportedly announced on Monday a policy that implantable radio frequency identification (RFID) devices that may promote the timely identification of patients and expedite access to their medical information. While I cannot find the actual wording of the policy voted on, the ideas are spelled out here and here.

It has been reported that less than 250 patients have agreed to implanted RFID chips, mostly likely because of privacy concern, but as noted by the FDA in its 2004 rule on implantable radiofrequency transponder system, "The potential risks to health associated with the device are adverse tissue reaction, migration of implanted transponder, compromised information security, failure of implanted transponder, failure of inserter, failure of electronic scanner, electromagnetic interference, electrical hazards, magnetic resonance imaging incompatibility, and needle stick."

Even though the AMA claims that it is concerned about the potential social consequences - e.g., government or private surveillance - it is not apparently concerned enough not to not recommend their use until these consequences are fully thought out. Currently, the FDA has approved only passive RFID chips, but active RFID chip use is likely not too far behind. It will be interesting to see whether, given the rush of the technology imperative, the AMA ethics folks approve that specific use, given the far greater ease of bio-surveillance.

I doubt very much that Monday's AMA recommendation will make much of a difference in the short or medium term. But it does mark an important point in the debate on the ethics of these types of implantable devices - one that seems to have gone generally unnoticed in the mainstream press.


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Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City