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Editorial: Ready to swallow less privacy about health?

A sand-particle sized silicon chip acts as a

A sand-particle sized silicon chip acts as a sensor to send a patient's heart rate, body temperature and physical activity to a physician's smartphone app via a patch on the stomach. Photo Credit: Proteus Digital Health Inc.

Medical charts, no longer confined to dusty backroom shelves or dated storage boxes, may get even more personal. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first ingestible digital health sensor, raising the question of how much privacy loss we're willing to swallow.

The California biotech company Proteus Digital Health created a minute silicon chip to be put in pills. Copper and magnesium power the chip, which sends heart rate, body temperature and physical activity data to a physician's smartphone. The chips are ideal for tracking treatment and monitoring patients from afar, but the information could make its way to a national database.

President George W. Bush ordered the creation of an electronic health record database in 2004, and President Barack Obama pushed the project along with stimulus spending in 2009, allotting $19 billion to have records for all citizens by 2014. The hope is that digital records will improve the quality of care and reduce costs.

Bush selected the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee the database, and it has addressed concerns such as what will be aggregated, who will have access, and restrictions to keep our information safe.

A survey of medical offices reports about 55 percent have adopted some electronic record technology. But while many doctors seem to agree about its usefulness, do the potential benefits outweigh the multiple risks?

The invention of the chip is a small step toward a time when our lives can be monitored from every angle. Such progress can both protect us from danger and strip away our privacy.