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Beware the Microchip

Tiny transmitters being embedded in everything from ID cards to the family dog may pose an unexpected danger: They can interfere with life-saving medical devices, according to a new study.

Known as radio frequency identification devices (RFID), these little gadgets permit windshield passes to pay tolls for moving cars, security clips on merchandise to catch shoplifters at the mall, frantic pet owners to find lost spaniels with microchips implanted under the animals' skin, and more. Hospitals are also increasingly using them to track surgical sponges and other medical equipment and supplies.

To test whether the signals these ubiquitous devices emit pose a danger, Erik Jan van Lieshout of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and colleagues devised an experiment in a vacant room in the intensive care unit at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam.

The researchers exposed 41 medical devices, including external pacemakers, mechanical ventilators, dialysis machines and defibrillators, to two RFID systems -- an "active" gizmo that automatically transmits data and a "passive" device that transmits information only when activated by a "reader." Researchers tested the RFID systems at various distances from the medical devices.

During 123 different tests, 34 incidents occurred, including 22 that would be considered directly "hazardous" to a patient, such interfering with a heart monitor, stopping a medication pump and even switching off a ventilator. The passive signal caused more problems -- 26 versus eight for the active device--perhaps because of the frequency of the signals emitted from reader.

The devices don't seem to be causing a lot of problems outside the hospital, but that can happen. At least one case has been reported in which a bookstore's reader made a elderly customer's implanted defibrillator malfunction. At the very least, Lieshout and his colleagues say hospitals should test whatever systems they are using to make sure they are safe and regulators should require medical devices be shielded against interference by RFIDs.

In an editorial accompanying the study in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association Donald Berwick of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, Mass., said the "disturbing" study shows how new technologies can pose unexpected dangers.

By Rob Stein  |  June 26, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Medical Technology  
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