Privacy expert highlights risks of implanting chips in patients

OTTAWA — Canadians need to engage in a broader discussion about the societal issues involved before hospitals and physicians embrace implantable microchips or other technologies touted as the next step in electronic patient records, a privacy expert warned Monday.

“There’s a huge potential here for disruptions and for problems,” Ian Kerr, a Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology, told a day-long conference on electronic health information and privacy.

Kerr, a professor at the University of Ottawa, portrayed a universe in the near future where people use implantable microchips to communicate with each other and with electronic devices through an ad hoc personal wireless network, a universe where receivers tracking that information are a fixture of public venues.

Ultimately, the technology will exist to transmit information like a person’s blood alcohol level directly to the police, Kerr said.

Although that might be deemed a societal good, “What this technology allows for is a kind of surreptitiousness that would (also) make it more difficult to hold accountable those that don’t want to go down the privacy road,” he said after his speech.

The technology is closer than most Canadians believe, since they’re still worried about having their credit card information stolen, believe, Kerr said.

For example, Florida-based VeriChip Corporation, which has an office in Ottawa, has already received a patent and FDA approval in the United States for implantable radio frequency identification microchips. The company and its sister firm, Digital Angel, tout the technology as a breakthrough that could track wanderers with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as missing children and pets.

In addition to a unique identification number, the microchips could ultimately store patients’ health records. In a Nov. 1 news release, VeriChip announced that 1100 physicians and  about 260 hospitals in the United States are already signed up to learn how to implant and scan patients’ microchips.  

Although the argument for microchips is that they are a portable, secure source of patient information that would result in better care, the technology can be spoofed, and could potentially cause health problems for patients wanting to remove the chips, Kerr told the conference.

“Once we go down the road of integrating machine parts into our body, we should ask ourselves the question of why we are doing it,” he said in an interview following his speech.

“In this case, the chip doesn’t do a whole lot more than the Medic Alert bracelet, which is a fairly non-invasive, privacy-friendly type solution. So I would ask the question why – why move to the next level?

“People seem to have a fairly blind acceptance of technology sometimes,” Kerr added.

Existing electronic patient records are already subject to misuse, as illustrated by a breach of privacy at the Ottawa Hospital. In July, Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian upheld the complaint of an Ottawa patient who warned that hospital that her ex-husband, a hospital employee, might try to access her health information to use it in a divorce and custody proceeding. Cavoukian found that a nurse at the hospital – the ex-husband’s girlfriend – had indeed accessed the patient’s electronic file and given the ex-husband information about the woman’s chronic heart condition.  

As Dr. Glen Geiger, the Ottawa Hospital’s medical director of clinical information systems told the conference, even hospital employees don’t want their personal health information loaded onto the electronic patient record. They flag their records to have them registered in special outpatient accounts so the results do not populate the electronic record, Geiger said.

“Treating personal health information for staff differently from that of everyone else creates two classes of citizens,” Geiger said. “That’s wrong. If our staff don’t trust us to keep their information private, why should anyone else?”

One of the key issues from a privacy perspective is the secondary use of information in patient electronic records.  Although there are “compelling reasons” for electronic health records, concerns arise when patient information is used for research, employment or insurance purposes, said Patricia Kosseim, general counsel with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

“Those are the ones that up to now, at least from a public policy and public engagement standpoint, have not had as fulsome a discussion,” Kosseim said. She called on Canadians to clarify their terms and conditions for use of their electronic health record.

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