WASHINGTON - Soon dog tags might tell battlefield physicians more than just name and blood type.
According to military medical researchers, within the next three years the tags could have every injury, every surgery, and every checkup of a servicemember's life on there, too.
Military officials working on ways to get vital medical information downrange are working on new electronic dog tags containing troops' complete medical history, along with that traditional social security number, service, blood type and religious information.
Already about 13,500 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are wearing electronic dog tags in addition to their standard-issue ones.
The experimental models are essentially reinforced memory sticks, which can plug into any laptop and display every injury, illness and medication troops are taking.
Tommy Morris, chief information technology officer for the Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, said so far they've been a reliable resource, giving physicians on the front line more information to make decisions on injuries and illnesses.
He said the next generation in development will be wireless transmitters that medics will be able to read simply by holding a Personal Digital Assistant, or PDA, near a patient.
"The biggest problem we're finding now is [that] the soldiers in the field don't like having to pull the tags out of a wounded patient's shirt and having to plug it in," he said.
Military medical officials said the stamped-metal IDs will probably never fully disappear, since their simplicity and durability make them tough to fully replace.
But Morris said he expects the electronic versions to become just as common. The size and shape of the wireless versions is still under development, but he expects the finished product will be smaller than a business card and just as thin.
That means the tags could be embedded nearly anywhere on a soldier's uniform: in a watch, on a belt or even in the existing metal dogs tags themselves.
"They really could go anywhere," he said.
For now security and durability are still the main concerns. While having all that medical information in one place is a boon for military physicians, it could also be a potential weapon if captured by enemy troops.
And Morris said researchers are adapting to problems in the field - like sweat corroding the delicate electronics - to make sure the devices won't fail in life-or-death situations.
The electronic tags are just the latest idea in the military's ongoing efforts to keep critical medical information with troops wherever they travel.
On Thursday, defense health officials said they are still on track to have the new electronics medical records system, known as AHLTA, fully operational by December. The massive database will have clinical information on more than 9.2 million troops and military dependents, and be available to military facilities worldwide.
And nearly 30,000 medics in Iraq and Afghanistan are already carrying PDAs which can download and update information from that database, to give them a battlefield assessment tool and provide near real-time tracking of troops' health.
Dog tags: A brief history
The first evidence of U.S. troops using markers or tags to identify their bodies appeared during the Civil War. Methods ranged from wooden ID tags to etching their names onto belts.
The first official military ID tag came in 1899, when the Army's Quartermaster Office of Identification in the Philippines recommended inclusion of an "identity disc" in all combat field kits.
In 1913, the Army required all soldiers wear ID tags, and in 1917, adopted the first aluminum discs stamped with information to be worn on chains around soldiers' necks.
Notched tags were issued to troops starting in WWII until the early 1970s. The notch was designed to hold the blank tag in place on the embossing machine, but urban legends spread that the notch was placed in the teeth of battlefield casualties to hold their jaws in place.
Source: U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center