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20/20 Vision: Google Glass in Healthcare is Coming

November 19, 2013
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Google Glass being used to show a surgery from the surgeon's point-of-view in a live feed at the Digital Health Conference in New York City Credit: Gabriel Perna

A lot of what we cover at Healthcare Informatics has to do with the “in the weeds” everyday work being done by healthcare IT leaders. Occasionally, we get a chance to look ahead and sometimes we even look way, way ahead.

Google Glass is in one of those categories. It’s going to take a few years for the wearable, augmented reality computer implemented in a pair of eyeglasses to become an everyday technology in a hospital setting. Just how long will it be – “ahead” or “way, way ahead”? Your guess is as good as mine.

I do know this though, when it does come, it will be a game-changer. This past week, I was at the Digital Health Conference in New York City, an event held by the New York eHealth Collaborative. It was there that I got my first in-person look at how Google Glass could influence the world of healthcare.

Heather Evans, M.D., a director of surgical infectious disease at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Washington, spoke to the crowd of 1,100 attendees about her experiences using Glass. Evans won the right to be a Glass Explorer (which strangely enough includes buying it for $1500) through a Google contest where they asked people how they’d use the technology. She tweeted the following:

Google chose her as one of the 8,000 explorers and the surgeon used the technology to experiment in the surgical room. Here’s an example she showed during the presentation.

Right off the bat, it was clear to me this technology is going to need time. Evans tried to connect with a colleague in Harborview that had Glass on, to do a live demonstration through Google Hangouts. She initially had trouble connecting. She expressed to the audience that part of the point of her presentation was to show that indeed, Glass technology is still a few years away and there are kinks to be worked out.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Evans talked further about technical challenges, "I think interacting with the device when you're concentrating on the patient is almost impossible." In that interview, she also talked about privacy concerns she has about the technology.

Still, at the Digital Health Conference, Evans discussed the fascinating possibilities that lie within Glass, which is essentially as our old friend John Halamka, M.D. wrote, is “basically an Android cellphone without the cellular transmitter built into a pair of glasses.” It connects with the Google enterprise, has a 5 megapixel camera, 16 gigs of storage, can do voice commands, and has proximity sensors.

In her presentation, Evans discussed specific examples where Glass would be a game-changer. Those areas of healthcare were in…

-Documentation: Ten second clips she said could help providers remember what they did to a patient, so they could put it into the electronic health record (EHR). These clips could also be a personal health record (PHR) for patients. 
-Communication Decision Support: In the mold of telemedicine, Glass can give remote providers a bird’s eye view of what someone else is seeing, so they can properly assist them in real-time if need be.  This could also be used for operating room checklists, Evans said.

-Training: Similar to the video above, Evans advocated for a controlled environment where Glass can be used to aid residents and students in training.

There are additional potential uses out there in healthcare. Philips Healthcare, with Accenture, recently showed off a proof of concept where Glass could be used to receive and send real-time data on patients.

After one look at Google Glass, I am on the bandwagon and don’t need any convincing. While there are certainly kinks to be worked out, concepts to be proofed, and trials to be erred, as Evans repeated throughout her presentation, “It’s coming.” I agree and look forward to the day where this technology is “in the weeds” everyday work.

What do you think? Feel free to write something in the comments below or tweet me at @HCI_GPerna.