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Will Getting Chipped Keep You Healthier?

I recently wrote about how RFID chips could possibly help surgeons find sponges they might have otherwise left inside their patients. Now, RFID chips by VeriChip Corporation are being paid for by Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (BCBS NJ) to see if patients at Hackensack University Medical Center will be healthier by using them.

You might wonder how anyone could get healthier by having a chip implanted under their skin. Well, these RFID chips uniquely identify you in VeriChip's central database. BCBS NJ is betting that over a two-year trial, the insurance company will save more than the $200 per chip implanted, plus the $80 a month for each patient's subscription fee to the central database. That may seem like a lot of money, but by slowing the progression of a chronic disease like diabetes, you decrease the costs of providing care for the complications such as hospitalizations for heart attacks, strokes, kidney problems, infections, and eye damage. But how does a chip help? By having a unique identifier to summarize the care a patient gets across all of the physicians they get care from, the insurer gets a more accurate summary of how well they're keeping up with their health care maintenance. A friendly suggestion to a delinquent patient's primary care doctor goes a long way to have that doctor follow up with the patient.

Having a unique identifier is only one part of getting healthier. Incentives for the physician to follow chronically ill patients more carefully is another important aspect. Large physician groups have incentives to show that they're providing better care, hence the pay for performance programs that reimburse these groups for achieving those goals. Large groups can afford the electronic medical record technology to provide insurance companies these reports to show they're achieving the measures set.

One concern is that RFID is not a completely secure technology. I've read reports of how easy it is to clone the RFID signature, not specifically of the VeriChip device, but others. If someone were to clone your unique signature, they could identify themselves as you, and potentially either receive services on your behalf, or even have data entered into your record that's based on their body not yours. I'd want to be sure it's secure before I'd get one injected.

Another concern is that readers for these chips have to be widely distributed before they're of any use to identify you. Your medical information also has to be accessible in an EMR, or the physician won't have anything to look up after they've successfully identified you.

This is exciting technology, but there are still a lot of developments needed before it's really useful.

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About the Author


Dr. Schwimmer's blog explores the intersection of medicine, new technologies, and the Internet.