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New Technology Helps During Emergencies

Breaking News - February 2006 - Week 4

(Feb 22, 2006)

Healthcare in  the News

-- In the future, patients arriving in the emergency department (ED) who need immediate access to their medical records may be armed - literally - with a tiny, high-tech helper.

Picture of a patient being taken out of an emergency helicopter

More than 1,000 Americans have already volunteered to get a microchip about the size of a grain of rice embedded in their arms.

The chip - similar to those now used to identify thousands of pets nationwide - allows emergency medical service (EMS) and ED crews to gain quick access to patients' medical e-files should they be unable to provide them.

"So, if a patient comes in and has the chip in their arm, the hospital's system will recognize them and pull up their entire medical record," explains David Ellis.

Ellis has examined the new VeriChipTM in his dual capacities as corporate director for Planning and Future Studies at the Detroit Medical Center, and as co-founder of the Michigan Electronic Medical Record Initiative.

Technology Helps to Save Time During an Emergency

Right now, Ellis says, emergency care staff lose precious time tracking down incoming patients' medical histories. In many cases, a patient's files are incomplete or scattered among various clinics and hospitals.

"These are often people who are outside the system or they are too old or frail to know what's happened to them in the past," Ellis says. "In many cases they may simply be unconscious, traumatically injured."

The VeriChip, developed by Applied Digital Solutions, of Delray Beach, Fla., could help many of these patients, he says.

The tiny chip, which costs about $200, is injected under the skin of the arm in a minimally invasive procedure that takes less than 20 minutes.

Experts stress that the chip itself does not contain the patient's medical records, just a 16-digit code that is detected by a hospital scanner. That digital identifier is then used tolocate the patient's medical files via computer.

The development of the chip is in keeping with US government efforts to improve health information technology.

Programs available through the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have awarded contracts and grants for healthcare technology projects.

Privacy Fears Addressed

While the technology sounds like a win-win for everyone, it does have its critics - namely privacy advocates who worry the embedded chip could lead to a "Big Brother" state where computers track an individual's every move.

But Ellis believes those fears are unfounded.

"First of all, the chips are voluntary, and we believe that they should always remain that way," he says. "This technology is also very easily removed if anyone later changes their mind about having one."

He also notes that scanners can only read the chips from distances less than a few feet. "You can't be tracked by satellite," Ellis says.

Finally, "all that can be read on the chip is that ID number," he adds. "So it requires that someone not only be able to read that ID number but also have access to the database that matches the ID number with the actual patient name and details."

Acceptance Comes Slowly

The VeriChip is gaining slow acceptance: former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson pledged to be "chipped" once he joined the VeriChip Corp. board of directors.

And Dr. John Hamalka of the Harvard Medical School has outlined his experience receiving an embedded VeriChip in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Hamalka, an avid mountain climber, says having the chip gives him added peace of mind that emergency staff will be better able to care for him should he become seriously injured.

Without the chip, "if I were to be hurt in any way, there's not a whole lot people would find on my body that would identify me," he adds.

Still, the notion that these technologies will undermine privacy remains a roadblock inhibiting their wider use, Ellis says.

Always consult your physician for more information.

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this Web site.


Aboutmedical records

According to the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), your medical record, or health record, is a compilation of information that is obtained every time you visit your doctor, hospital, or another healthcare provider.

Your medical record is used by doctors, nurses, and other medical staff to ensure you receive quality healthcare, states the AHIMA.

The medical record serves as a:

  • basis for planning your care and treatment
  • means by which doctors, nurses, and others caring for you can talk to one another about your needs
  • legal document describing the care you received
  • means by which you or your insurance company can verify that services billed were actually provided

Why keep a medical record?

You never know when you will need treatment for an illness or injury.

But what if your health information is scattered across many different providers and facilities?

The AHIMA states that keeping your own complete, updated, and easily accessible health record means that the right information will be available when you and your healthcare providers need it.

Managing your health information at home is one of the best ways to have constant access to your information over the course of your lifetime.

According to the AHIMA, whether you change physicians or are managing a chronic disease or condition such as diabetes, keeping your own personal health record ensures you and your family will have vital information at your fingertips. By gathering your health information, you create a personal health record.

Always consult your physician for more information.


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