About this Article
Written by: Rodrigo Santos
Written on: December 3rd, 2010
Tags: biomedical engineering, health & medicine
Thumbnail by: VeriChip
About the Author
Rodrigo is a senior majoring in Computer Science/Business Administration at the University of Southern California. Born in Brazil and raised on Cape Cod, he is now enjoying the west coast sunshine while making his family proud as a first generation college student. Rodrigo enjoys music, songwriting and the life of a Trojan.
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Volume XII Issue III > A Tiny Microchip is Up for the Challenge
The National Academy of Engineering recently released fourteen Grand Challenges for the engineers of the 21st century. These challenges reflect global problems that range from the creation of new energy sources to the advancement of healthcare informatics. With the growth of informatics technology, more patient files are making their way onto hard-drives and servers, which are economical and eco-friendly alternatives to paper. In fact, files can now be stored underneath the skin through the use of an implantable microchip. This device is a milestone for the advancement of healthcare informatics because it facilitates storage of medical information and provides fast access to these files under critical circumstances. Becoming more acquainted with this technology requires knowledge of how it works, current uses of the microchip, current limitations, and future applications.


The implantable microchip is an advanced form of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag or transponder [1]. It contains the ability to communicate with and transfer information to other devices that operate on the same radio frequency. Some of its predecessors can be found on the back of shipment labels, helping shipping companies to accurately track packages from point of departure to destination.
RFID technology was developed in 1935 by Scottish physicist Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt to identify approaching airplanes while they were still miles away. Although it was used during World War II by the Germans, Japanese, Americans, and British, the technology could not differentiate the airplanes; it could only detect that they were coming. The technology re-emerged in 1973 when Charles Walton used it to open doors without keys [2]. Thirty years later different companies incorporated RFID technology into a global positioning system (GPS) device, and in 2004 Verichip received approval from the FDA to use the technology to link a chip implanted within the subcutaneous layer of a patient’s skin to an online server containing relevant medical data and records. The company merged with Steel Vault Corporation in 2009 to form Positive ID, which today is the largest national microchip provider serving a variety of industries, including healthcare [3].

How It Works

RFID tags come in a wide range of shapes and sizes (some about a third of a millimeter) and can be broken down into 3 main parts (see Fig. 1): RFID transponder, Reader, and Server.


Santos and Morton/Illumin
Figure​ 1: Process of Data Transmittal.
The RFID, or transponder, sends out a unique signal that allows the Reader to identify its location and identification. There are two types of transponders: passive and active. Passive transponders are smaller in size, do not require power, and have long-term operation capacity. Since they do not actively broadcast their signal, they require an external radio wave to establish contact and initiate data request. This is the type of transponder used in healthcare informatics. Active transponders require battery power to broadcast signals to the Reader, but transmissions are more reliable.


The RFID Reader reads and writes information from the transponder. In the healthcare sector, it acts as a wire connecting the transponder to the patient’s data stored on the server. Upon scanning the unique set of numbers from a patient’s transponder, the reader sends the information out onto an online database, which is matched with a corresponding file and opened within seconds onto a monitor screen.


The server stores all patient information and can be accessed by the unique set of digits from the transponder. It is typically encrypted and can be accessed through the Reader’s transmitted signal or the right set of passwords [4].