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Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Scanner Doctorly

From the AP business desk:
In a new test program, Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey plans to implant patients suffering from chronic diseases with a microchip that will give emergency room staff access to their medical information and help avoid costly or serious medical errors, the insurer said on Friday.
The company hopes to implant RFID chips into the arms of 280 regularly returning patients so that doctors can identify and retrieve medical information from them even if they are unconscious. Participation is free, and doctors will implant the chip above the elbow on the right arm. The hope is that the information will help reduce medication errors or incorrect diagnoses. Of course, the information retrieved still has to be accurate for that to happen. Or one has to have had access to a doctor so that good medical records exist at all.

Allison Burke, writing for the Ledger Online, paints a nightmare scenario for us:
Someone calls 911. You hear sirens and see lights. The seconds tick by too quickly.

After an interminable time, you arrive at the emergency room.

But there's a problem. No one knows who you are. You try to tell them, but you can't speak. Who knows how long it might be before you get help?

Unfortunately, this situation is all too common. Patients are admitted to the emergency room every day without identification, without which they cannot be helped.
Technology boosters generally like to paint horrific scenarios in order to scare us into accepting their specialized and often less than benevolent "help." In fact, Verichip spokeswoman Nicole Philbin really let's us have it with the scare tactics. Of course, her company provides the chip. According to the article:
"Sometimes people don't think about that," she said. "Verichip gives them peace of mind that, if they're unconscious, they'll be taken care of. And even if they're not unconscious, it saves time."And time is of the essence in the emergency room. An estimated 98,000 people die in the hospital each year, just waiting to be identified and to receive treatment, Philbin said.
But, when the reporter interviews emergency room doctor Steven Yucht, he doesn't respond with the same urgency. He says,
"We have (John Doe patients) all the time. Usually the only reason (patients have no ID) is because they're nefarious, involved in drugs or something illegal, and so they're not carrying their IDs. But if grandma comes from the nursing home, we may not have her name, but we can figure it out pretty quick and get her medical attention."
When Burke does allow RFID critics to speak, she allows Verichip to pooh-pooh the concerns with a tactic standard in the pro-tech inventory, saying, essentially, that other technologies have already eroded the rights or freedoms that critics want to defend, so we ought to have no worries about the new system.
"Verichip is not a tracking device," she said.

"The average person's cell phone has GPS tracking ability. You can find out more from someone who carries a cell phone than (someone who is implanted with) Verichip."
And that's a real problem. Technological "progress" is not up for debate. When potential downsides are discussed at all, which is rare, they are generally immediately dismissed. The thought that an unaccountable system of surveillance, dependent on specialization, bureaucratization and potentially mandatory participation might be a bad idea is off the table, and the next time another intrusive technology comes along, we'll all be told that it isn't so bad because we already lost those freedoms with the Verichip. That's progress.

In the end, Doctor Yucht puts it this way, hardly a political critique of technology, but it's all we get: "(Verichip is) something helpful for those who have the money to buy peace of mind with the unrealistic ideal that it's going to be used the way (they) expect it to."

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