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Implanting ideas to store medical history

Implanting ideas to store medical history

By Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

Members of a Florida family have had electronic chips with medical information implanted under the skin in their upper arms.

The data on the chips can be read -- kind of like a bar code. Pet owners use the same technology to help identify lost dogs and cats.

The family's reason for the implants was to ensure that doctors would have easy access to medical information in case of emergency. It was a way to assure "health security" since some family members have complicated medical problems.

The chips contain limited information -- just phone numbers and a prescription history. There is no significant medical or other private data -- at least not yet.

Some companies have suggested that the next step should include a miniature Global Positioning System transmitter in the chip so that pets -- and perhaps people -- could not only be identified but also located when they're lost.

But is this method of storing information a good or a bad thing? Like many new technologies, it offers a little of each.

Information is only skin-deep

Chips that include more detailed medical information likely will be offered, and some consumers will decide to use them.

Once that happens, anyone with the equipment to read the chips and a password could conceivably obtain information.

Carrying around electronic medical information in this way makes it easier and harder to protect privacy.

On the one hand, a chip under the skin could make a person's health history an open book. But the information could be much more effectively controlled than it would be stored in computers and file cabinets in hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices.

The key will be limiting access to the information, both in terms of who can obtain it and whether different information can be made available for different purposes.

The issue of increased medical privacy -- including strict federal rules scheduled to go into effect in 2003 -- will be at the heart of what the future holds for such implantable chips.

From information storage to body, mind control

It is difficult to overlook the connection between the Florida family and a recent report about implanting chips into the brains of rats.

The latter wasn't done for information storage, however. Researchers were able to send signals to rats' brains and trick the rodents into thinking they were experiencing something they were not.

For example, the rats were made to think their whiskers were brushing against an object, causing them to turn away from the imagined obstacle. The researchers effectively created virtual sensations as a way of controlling the rats' environment.

This step from the use of implanted computer chips for storing information to employing them to create perception isn't happening in humans, but the possibilities are striking.

Imagine a future in which computer chips control processes and functions in the body. We would likely start by trying to correct or repair defects or diseases, such as computer controlled release of insulin into the bloodstream for diabetics.

In fact, insulin pumps are the beginning of just this sort of approach. And pacemakers are long-standing and sophisticated versions of an implantable computer-controlled device.

But computer control in the brain may be more than a far-off possibility. The question is how we decide to use brain-stimulating implants.

Implanted brain stimulators already are used for Parkinson's disease, but what about to alter personality disorders? What about eventually trying to improve perception and intelligence?

Whether it's the near-term application of implanted chips for information storage or future ways to control the body and mind, we must find methods to make us better off while protecting against misuse.

It may even give rise to a new medical specialty of computer chip medicine -- preventing and treating crashes, hackers, worms, viruses and the ominous "fatal default error."

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.




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