Despite Practical and Privacy Concerns, Doctors See Potential in Google Glass

Google Glass team members wear Google Glasses.

Google Glass team members wear Google Glasses. Jeff Chiu/AP

The technology could improve contact among doctors and specialists and help train medical students.

Sure, it might make you look like you walked off a Star Trek set. And sure, Newt Gingrich was mocked for wearing it to the zoo. But the ripples of excitement surrounding Google Glass extend beyond the tech world. The new, wearable computer also has some doctors wired.

The technology, which crosses a computer with a pair of eyeglasses, has the potential to improve contact among doctors and specialists, strengthen doctor-patient relationships, and train medical students, its early adopters say. The Affordable Care Act "emphasizes quality, safety, and efficiency rather than quantity of care," John Halamka, chief information officer at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, says in an email. He is referring to a number of provisions in the 2010 health reform law that encourage providers to deliver higher-quality care at a lower price. "Hospitals and providers will invest [in] tools that ensure the patient gets the right care at the right time," he continues. He sees Glass as one of them.

Last month, surgeon Christopher Kaeding repaired an injured knee ligament on a patient while wearing Glass, which recorded the procedure. The undertaking was the brainchild of Ismail Nabeel, Kaeding's colleague at Ohio State University, who applied this spring to be an "explorer," Google's name for the exclusive group of early adopters of the technology. He and Kaeding will present the video and the rest of their findings on the uses of Google Glass as a medical-school tool at the Ohio Educational Technology Conference in January.

When preparing for the ACL surgery, Nabeel had concerns about Glass's battery life, so they used a separate battery pack. Another issue was compliance with HIPAA patient-privacy protocols while transmitting information. In this case, the doctors showed a live stream via an encrypted network to approximately 15 clinical students using encrypted devices, laptops, and iPads. Nabeel says the ACL-surgery footage is being held "in an encrypted HIPAA-compliant storage server at the medical center for future use."

The ability to connect with experts offsite also benefits less experienced doctors, says Martin Olsen, an OB-GYN and professor at East Tennessee State University. "Let's say an emergency medical technician is doing a delivery in the field," Olsen says. "An obstetrician [elsewhere] can help them through it."

Glass could save time in the transition from the ambulance to the emergency room, allowing an EMS technician to send the images to the ER so the doctors there can prepare before the patient even arrives. And unlike the smartphone or iPad, Glass is hands-free. "As an emergency physician, I can tell you, my hands are often used delivering patient care. The notion of wearing a computer that would enable me to see patient data—that is very useful," Halamka says.

Patients are more likely to feel connected with their doctor if they can make eye contact, albeit through Glass, he argues, as opposed to trying to connect with a doctor as they fiddle with a separate computer screen. Halamka, also a professor at Harvard Medical School, has become a self-described "champion" of Glass at Beth Israel.

Concerns over the safety of patient data are one obstacle the technology will have to overcome, and Halamka is confident it will. He believes hospitals can keep patient information as safe as banks keep their customers' account information. When it comes to encryption and security protocol, he says, "Our architecture is the same."

Practical concerns with Glass's proliferation in hospitals also abound. One is the risk of spreading infection as the instrument is carried from room to room. Halamka says his team now wipes down with alcohol the iPads they have incorporated into their work. "I presume we'll do the same thing with Glass," he says.

Still, looking into the future, it's clear to Halamka, Nabeel, and Olsen that Glass has enormous potential to be, as Halamka puts it, "Not only a way of looking at data, but also a way of looking at wisdom."

"There's more [written about] medicine every year in journals than a doctor can read in a lifetime. Keeping all the evidence straight is hard," he says. He describes Glass as a kind of Terminator-like instant evaluation screen (except with good intentions): "This is Mrs. Smith. She has the following issue, and here's the evidence that suggests the best way to treat her now."

Such collection of data on patients as well as medical research will likely be possible once Glass, and the various companies developing apps for it, evolve. There are only about 2,000 users of the $1,500 eyewear right now, including such celebrities as rapper Soulja Boy and Star Trek star LeVar Burton (one might say the "original Glass Explorer"), and a handful of doctors like Nabeel and Kaeding.

"I think it's one of those tools where, once you have it, you won't go back—just like a cell phone," Olsen says. Halamka agrees. "Years ago, people stumbling across crosswalks with smartphones was crazy. Now I walk through an airport and there's not a single person not doing it," he says.