By Maureen McKinney
April 29, 2008 | After an extensive, three-year effort aimed at implementing necessary IT infrastructure in the region’s hospitals, Florida-based RFID vendor, VeriChip Corp., will begin aggressively marketing HealthLink—its patient identification system—directly to local consumers, the company said in an April 22 announcement.
HealthLink consists of a rice grain-sized microchip that is implanted under the skin of a patient’s upper arm. That chip contains a randomly-assigned, 16-digit patient identification number that, when scanned, links to a stored copy of the patient’s health record, explained Scott Silverman, VeriChip’s chief executive officer. Interestingly, HealthLink utilizes exactly the same technology as pet microchips, which are often used to reunite lost animals with their owners.
“Over the last 15 years, scanning for microchips has become standard protocol in veterinary clinics,” Silverman said. “When an animal presents, the veterinarian waves the scanner over the animal’s neck and pulls up an identification number. That event happens 8000 times per month, and we want similar statistics for a much different issue.”
VeriChip secured approval for use of the device in humans from the Food and Drug Administration in October 2004, and following that clearance, the company began to market scanners and the other necessary components to hospitals in areas throughout the country. Interested providers signed an agreement, installed the system, and went through training, Silverman said.
“Obviously, if the correct IT infrastructure is not in place and use of the scanner in emergency settings is not standard protocol, the chip won’t work,” said Silverman. “That was our first mission.”
Although hospitals some regions of the country—including parts of New Jersey—have implemented the systems and are now using scanners regularly, South Florida had the highest levels of adoption. More than 75 percent of area hospitals are currently scanning the upper arms of unconscious patients to detect microchips, and that made it the ideal place to test the vendor’s first effort at marketing directly to consumers, Silverman added. Through television and print advertisements, VeriChip will target three nearby counties in the hopes of enrolling 1,000 new users.
“This is the direct-to-consumer test we’ve been waiting years to do,” Silverman said. “If we’re successful here in South Florida, then we can move on to other areas of the country.”
If a clinician scans the arm of a patient in an emergency room and detects a chip, the patient’s identifier will link to a personal health record containing information from the patient and the primary care physician, which is housed by VeriChip. The company recommends that patients populate their record with basic information including medications, allergies, past procedures, and diseases, but some users also store data such as cardiograms and medical images, Silverman said.
For instance, after crashing into a tree during a high-speed car chase, a New Jersey police officer was rushed by paramedics to a local medical center. Once there, emergency room physicians scanned the man’s arm, detected the embedded microchip, and determined from his medical record that he was diabetic.
Not surprisingly, many patients have been hesitant about the prospect of having a microchip injected under their skin. In fact, when VeriChip first announced FDA approval, many mistakenly thought HealthLink would function like a GPS tracking device. Silverman responded by going on an “educational crusade,” telling patients the device was dormant, would not migrate throughout their body, and is approved for this type of use.
“People were nervous, but after a thorough explanation, they let go of the Big Brother ideas and were much more at ease,” Silverman said. “This is primarily for high-risk patients, and it’s intended so they can receive better care.”