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Not Dr. Glasshole: How Google Glass Could Help Save Lives

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Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital

Dr. Christopher Bergin wears Google Glass during surgery to remove an abdominal tumor at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital.

Credit: Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital

From Boston to Bloomington, in hospitals around the U.S., surgeons and hospital staff are pairing up scrubs with a futuristic accessory: Google Glass.

"The first time that I used it, it was one of those ‘this is going to be huge’ moments," says Paul Szotek, an Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital trauma surgeon who performed abdominal wall surgery in February while wearing the device.

Like Szotek, many doctors who have used Glass are optimistic about the device’s place in daily medical practice. However, hardware improvements and standards for use are needed before the technology will be broadly accepted, they say.

Google debuted Glass, a wearable computer with head-mounted display, in 2012. A legion of early adopters, Google’s hand-picked "Explorers," were soon broadcasting stunning first-person footage of hikes and cooking shows and wedding proposals, activating their head-mounted cameras with voice commands, gestures, or a few taps of the frame.

The in-your-face device has also earned some criticism. Casinos, movie theaters, and bars across the country have banned Glass, wary of the device’s discreet recording ability. Early adopters became "Glassholes" in the public eye, and Google even published a how-to guide to using the device civilly.

All the while, doctors have been experimenting with the device. In the two years since its launch, Glass has been worn during orthopedic surgeries, heart surgeries, and dozens of other medical procedures performed around the U.S., allowing surgeons to live-stream a first-person view of a procedure for colleagues or students, or use the screen to access patient information.

"Say I’m taking a bump off [the nose] and modifying the tip; I don’t have to raise my head off the table" to view pre-operative photos, says Ramtin Kassir, a New York plastic surgeon who uses Google Glass while performing rhinoplasties.

Hospitals have started rolling out formal trials to assess the benefits of using Glass for a variety of purposes. In addition, the University of California Irvine School of Medicine recently issued Glass to all of its students, making it the first medical school to incorporate the device into its curriculum.

Back at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, Szotek is sending out teams of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) with the device to test whether live-streaming footage from the scene of an emergency can improve medical response.

In Boston, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital has begun systematic testing of Google Glass in its emergency rooms, where about 20% of the staff wear the devices throughout their shifts; or, as long as the battery lasts.

"It allows us to spend more time at the patient’s bedside rather than being at the computer," says Terrence Lee, a resident in Beth Israel’s Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency program. So far, Lee says, the device has proven most popular with the hospital’s youngest staff, the resident physicians.

Lee says QR codes taped outside patient rooms allow medical personnel to use Glass to pull up individual patient records; vitals, comments from doctors and other nurses, lab values, and more, are quickly within reach. Back at the trauma room where the pace can be frantic, Glass is a good way to keep up, Lee says.

Doctors are also excited about Glass’s potential as an educational tool. At a conference in Tehran in April, Kassir says he was able to demonstrate the device to 1,200 attendees.

Szotek points out that Glass can help a surgeon provide better instruction to a medical resident from across the operating table. Glass "flips the view," he says, so the senior doctor can offer better advice to the physician being trained.

Yet for all its potential, doctors grapple with some of the same concerns other users have about the device.

"Right now, Glass 1.0 is not quite there yet to use it at a broad scale to impact healthcare," says Clay Marsh, chief innovation officer at the Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.

One issue often expressed about the device is that it needs a better battery life. Also, to folks like Beth Israel’s Lee, Glass "still feels a bit bulky."

There also are security issues. While Glass can be used to live-stream videos from within a hospital where HIPAA-standard Wi-Fi networks are secure, IU’s Szotek expects his EMTs will have a harder time picking up a secure connection out in the field.

Ultimately, patient choice could influence how the devices are used. In small trials so far, the reception has been warm. At Beth Israel, patients are "just curious what we’re using it for," Lee says.

However, a broader rollout could face a stronger pushback. Teams at OSU have been asking patients about Glass’s place in a clinical setting, and Clay Marsh says they’ve fielded plenty of questions about privacy and manner of use.

Still, Marsh says, "the potential is terrific." In a few years, when "this technology sits in the background," that’s when Glass technology will be most powerful, he says.

Nidhi Subbaraman is a freelance science and technology writer based in New York City.


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