Doctors Weigh In on Human RFID Implants

The American Medical Association says there are benefits to RFID implants, but also some concerns.
Published: July 23, 2012

I often receive e-mails with such cryptic messages as “They will implant these devices in us without our knowledge,” or “One day, they will force us to have every child implanted with radio frequency identification.” These correspondents never identify exactly who “they” are, but one thing is clear: “They” are not American doctors.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has just released a report on the use of RFID implants to track medical patients (see Report of the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs: Radio Frequency ID Devices in Humans). On the positive side, the report says that RFID tags could promote “the timely identification of patients and expedite access to their medical information,” adding that the technology could also “improve the continuity and coordination of care, with resulting reduction in adverse drug events and other medical errors.” Finally, the document notes, RFID could make medical processes more efficient, enabling caregivers to quickly access diagnostic tests and other patient information.

The powerful AMA, however, did not give the technology a blanket endorsement. Rather, the report indicated: “These devices may present physical risks to the patient. Though they are removable, their small size allows them to migrate under the skin, making them potentially difficult to extract.”

The report went on to add this warning: “RFID tags may cause electromagnetic interference, which may interfere with electrosurgical devices and defibrillators. Finally, it has not been determined whether RFID tags might affect the efficacy of pharmaceuticals.”

The AMA’s report raised some questions about whether tag data could be picked up by unauthorized readers. It recommended the technology only be used with the approval of patients after they’ve been warned of the potential problems, and that doctors use the same level of security with RFID devices as they currently do with medical records. It’s hard to argue with any of these recommendations.

Download the AMA’s report.