Will Google Glass create digital doctors?

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Google Glass has attracted all kinds of attention, much of it negative: while the idea of a head-mounted computer sounds suitably sci-fi, the high cost and associated controversy - privacy fears, early adopters being mugged, some places banning Glass altogether - means it hasn’t become the massive success that Google probably hoped it would be. But in the right hands - or rather, on the right heads - it could revolutionise the way people work. It’s particularly exciting for medicine.

What Google Glass actually does

Glass takes the key bits of a smartphone - a screen, a microphone and a camera - and sticks them on your head. Specially designed apps can then use that hardware for all kinds of things: for example, suggestions for apps include apps that can warn deaf people of hazards, apps that can display blueprints on building sites, apps that watch your pupils to monitor stress levels and so on. It already does videoconferencing (although while you can see who you’re talking to, they can’t see you: the camera points away from you), messaging and basic internet searching, and there’s a new version due in early 2015.

What Google Glass might do in medicine

As Timothy Aungst writes on iMedicalApps.com, wearable computing could be a very big deal in medicine: he suggests that a nurse doing a home visit might “record and capture images of the patient’s would and send them back to the physician”, that paramedics could stream essential data to A&E doctors, that cardiologists could overlay flouroscopies as they perform surgery, and that pharmacists could “scan medications and verify the proper drugs after comparing the drug with images available in the database”.

It all depends on the apps, of course, but if you can display it on a smartphone screen you can display it on Google Glass - and that means pretty much anything medical professionals currently do on iPhones, iPads or similar devices might potentially work as a Google Glass app. There are limits, of course - you wouldn’t want to flip through medical journals on Glass’s small screen - but it isn’t hard to envisage Glass apps that provide essential medical records, vital statistics from patients’ monitors, diagnostic tools and so on.

Glass’s camera and screen present other opportunities too. Rather than take notes, doctors could take audio, photo or video notes, and surgeons could stream video of rare or complex surgeries for colleagues or students to study. Even simple apps could make a big difference: by making record-keeping hands-free, Glass could enable physical therapists to take notes as they treat the patient, not afterwards.

Electronics giant Philips is already investing in the area. “Imagine a device that allows doctors performing surgery to simultaneously monitor a patient’s vital signs and react to changes – without ever having to take their eyes off the procedure or patient. We’ve imagined it and more.” The product is still at the proof of concept stage, but Philips’ Intellivue uses Google Glass to display patients’ vital signs for surgeons. According to anesthesiologist David Feinstein MD, “it’s a great stepping stone that will make the care of patients go a little bit smoother and our jobs a little bit easier.” You’ll find more information and a video on the Philips Healthcare site

Other medical apps are already in development. For example, MedRef for Glass promises to display patients’ records by saying their name or taking a photo of their face, enabling care givers to add photos or dictate notes with ease. Google’s #ifihadglass hashtag campaign on Twitter also unearthed some very interesting suggestions, many of which Med City News has collated.

Momentum does appear to be building. Stanford University Medical Center’s department of cardiothoracic surgery uses Glass in its resident training programme, while Dignity Health uses Glass to record doctor-patient conversations and provide patient data. And in Chicago, the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center is trialling Glass for paramedics who can stream video and images to doctors while the ambulance takes injured patients to hospital.

Marc Andreesen, co-creator of the very first web browser and now an influential venture capitalist, believes that Glass is "magical”: in an interview with Bloomberg he described doctors “dealing with wounded patients and right there in their field of vision, if they’re trying to do any kind of procedure, they’ll have step-by-step instructions walking them through it. Don’t have to call anyone, it’s just there. That kind of thing, where we can view the Internet overlaid on the real world is transformative in a lot of different areas.” It’s likely to make lots of money, too: venture capitalists are very interested in Glass apps, and medical ones in particular.

Glass might never become something the average person wears in the street, but chances are that among doctors, it could become as common as a stethoscope and bad handwriting.