My latest column explores the intriguing business ties between the companies making radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs) for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), and for implantation into people to track their medical records.

Aside from the neat symetrical relationship between the companies making and selling the chips, it was quite seductive to listen to the executives of Digital Angel and VeriChip talk about the benefits of their RFID chips for farm animals and people. The chips for farm animals help factory farms more efficiently maintain their “inventory,” and cut the cost of disease. The chips for people help identify patients who may come into an emergency room confused because of insulin shock or heart failure. One of the executives described how one of the patients who is wearing the chips in his arm is a diabetic policeman, who was involved in an auto accident and was brought into the hospital unconscious…and identified by his RFID chip.

The executives even mouthed nice platitudes about the importance of privacy, and how concerned their companies are with making sure the chips are always made available on a voluntary rather than required basis. 
It was almost enough to make me forget about the most important underlying business and healthcare issue at hand: the databases behind these chips. The chips themselves contain only an identification number, of an animal or a person. For the animals, the government controls the database. But for people, VeriChip wants to be in charge of patient health information (or share control with hospitals).

The database is the holy grail from a business viewpoint. He who controls the health data wields tremendous power over health care in the country, along with being able to charge for maintaining the data. The government is pushing the medical community to digitize patient records, and doctors have been slow to respond. 
In its filing for with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for an initial public offering. VeriChip discusses two levels of health records—a basic record with name, address, and blood type; and a complete record, including a health history. It’s that complete record it is after.

We can expect to see a corporate battle for control of this data. As I mention in the article, major retailers like Wal-Mart and Walgreens have their eye on this information as well. And health insurance companies are also in the fray.

I don’t have a problem with digitizing health information. I just want to be the one controlling my information, rather than VeriChip or Walgreens. So I may not be lining up to have one of those chips implanted in my arm.