The Implications of Implanted Chips

In June of 2007, the American Medical Association’s Council on Ethics and Judicial Affairs stated, “RFID tags may promote the timely identification of patients and expedite access to their medical information. As a result, these devices can improve the continuity and coordination of care with resulting reduction in adverse drug events and other medical errors.”

Approved by the FDA in 2004 and marketed by the VeriChip Corporation, the VeriChip is a microchip about twice the length of a grain of rice. It is implanted below the skin and above the triceps area of the patient’s right arm. The procedure can be performed in a doctor’s office after a local anesthetic is given to numb the area.

The VeriChip contains a 16-digit number that, once scanned at the right frequency, can provide information on the patient’s health. The subscriber controls information in the database. A VeriChip reader is needed to gain access to the information in the database. Hospitals who become part of the system are provided with a secure logon, and a record is made anytime anyone accesses a subscriber’s information.

Potential medical complications of chip insertion are infection of the tissue at the site of implantation and migration of the chip. There have been studies that have shown a small risk of tumors in small lab animals that were implanted with RFID’s, but there is no evidence that VeriChip has ever caused such a problem.

One of the biggest medical concerns with the VeriChip is that patients who have one implanted may not be able to undergo an MRI. A MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is a valuable test that can image different tissues and does not use radiation. Any implanted device containing metal such as a pin, plate, screw, or artificial heart valve, to name a few, can cause patient burns when the patient undergoes a MRI. The recommendation is that only VeriChip patients who are awake and alert should have a MRI exam, so that they are able to alert medical personnel if they feel any heating of the implant.

The other obvious issue, and perhaps the most important one, is that of privacy. Although the chip contains only a 16-digit number and one would need to be in possession of a VeriChip reader and an access code, it seems possible that others with no right to your personal information could find a way to get it.

Although undoubtedly designed with good intentions, the risk for abuse of patient privacy in this situation is difficult to ignore. Time will tell. In the meantime, one can always wear a MedicAlert bracelet. They’re cheap, and you can take them off before you climb into that MRI machine.


Sade, RM. (2007) Report of the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. CEJA Report 5-A-07.

Holtzman, DH. Human ID Chips Get Under My Skin. BusinessWeek. February 12, 2008.

Jennifer Bunn, RN

Jennifer Bunn, RN, is a registered nurse who has been practicing for over 15 years.
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