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Google Glass breaks into the OR

November 20, 2013

BY: Aimee Hosler

Google Glass. What looks like a futuristic pair of eyeglasses can be used to record and share anything from a stroll in the park to skydive jumps at 10,000 feet. Now the device is making its way into operating rooms, and according to ABC News, its presence could lead to better patient care and outcomes. Cardiothoracic surgeon Pierre Theodore at the University of California San Francisco, who already uses the device regularly during surgery, would be inclined to agree.

"I truly do think that the general concept of wearable computing technology in healthcare is revolutionary," Theodore said in a UCSF release. "There really is a tremendous number of potential options for its use and it becomes incumbent upon us to try and think about what the various possible use cases might be."

What is Google Glass and why is it in the OR?

Forbes describes Google Glass as a wearable computer display and camera that looks much like a trendy pair of glasses, but without the lenses. Its wearer can view information in a small display, record and share live events from a first-person point of view, and make voice and video calls through hands-free operation. Though Glass is not yet available to the public at large, Google has begun rolling the device out to a select group of early adopters through its Glass Explorer program, encouraging them to share all the innovative ways they find to use the product. Some of those early adopters have included surgeons who have already begun to flex Glass's power. The results have been notable.

One way Glass is being used in the OR is by giving other surgeons a chance to observe, weigh in on or learn from a colleague's surgery, no matter where said surgery is taking place. According to AL.com, Dr. Brent Ponce, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, performed a shoulder replacement surgery in September wearing the device, which allowed him to collaborate with another surgeon -- Dr. Phani Dantuluri -- hundreds of miles away. Dantuluri said the device let him participate in the procedure using virtual instruments. He called it a "merged-reality environment."

"It's real-time, real-life, right there, as opposed to a Skype or video conference call, which allows for dialogue back and forth but is not really interactive," said Ponce, who likened the visual display to the first-down marking football fans see on the screen when watching games on television. "You see the line, although it's not really on the field."

ABC News notes that Glass can be used as a teaching tool in medical schools, too. Christopher Kaeding, an orthopedic surgeon at the Ohio State University, dons Glass for standard surgical procedures. Students can then view the surgery in real time, from a first-person perspective, anywhere in the world. A single pair of glasses means that an entire class of surgical students can now observe even the most novel procedures, without ever having to scrub in. Theodore told UCSF that Glass's mentorship and teaching potential can be applied on a truly global scale, too, allowing surgeons in more remote regions -- where training is more scarce -- to learn the latest techniques.

Perhaps the area of healthcare in which Glass could have the greatest impact, however, is in improved patient care and outcomes. Theodore says that technology has a history of helping surgeons perform procedures safely and more effectively, and that Glass could be one giant step forward in that department. He said the device allows him to view important patient information -- like lab results and X-rays -- almost immediately, helping them make better informed, lifesaving decisions on the spot.

"Poor decision-making is a chief source of poor outcomes among patients," said Theodore. "To be able to have those x-rays directly in your field without having to leave the operating room or to log on to another system elsewhere, or to turn yourself away from the patient in order to divert your attention, is very helpful in terms of maintaining your attention where it should be, which is on the patient 100 percent of the time."

Glass ceiling: Promise and limitations

Knowing that a certain technology can help surgeons in the OR is one thing -- being able to use it effectively, and comfortably, is quite another. Kaeding said in a release acquired by Mashable that to that extent, Glass was surprisingly unintrusive.

"To be honest, once we got into the surgery, I often forgot the device was there," Kaeding said. "It just seemed very intuitive and fit seamlessly."

The experience might be less seamless for the viewer, however: Some of Kaeding's students told ABC News that the quality of Glass's video output and buffering could be better, and that the location of Glass's camera made it difficult to see some of their teacher's incisions. Glass also has a relatively short battery life, which could be problematic in long surgeries. Kaeding said he kept a spare battery in his pocket, just in case.

Other concerns with Google Glass deal more with its capabilities than with the device itself. Forbes notes that some experts also worry what using Glass in the OR might mean for patient privacy and information security. These concerns are common with many new technologies as they make headway into healthcare, and history suggests there is still plenty of time to iron out potential issues. Forbes notes that Google Glass will not be released to the consumer market until sometime next year. It is expected to cost roughly $300 to $400 at retail, a sharp drop from its current $1,500 price point. For those who just can't wait, Google recently opened up applications to its Google Explorer program to any U.S. resident.

Sources

"UAB doctor performs surgery using Google Glass (watch video)," Mike Oliver, AL.com, Oct. 29, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/10/uab_surgeon_performs_surgery_u.html

"How Google Glass Is Now Being Used During Surgery," Forbes, Maria Doyle, Nov. 5, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/ptc/2013/11/05/how-google-glass-is-now-being-used-during-surgery/

"Google Glass Assists Surgeons and Medical Students at Ohio University," ABC News, Jon M. Chang, Aug. 29, 2013, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/google-glass-assists-surgeons-medical-students-ohio-state/story?id=20109218

"Doctor Wearing Google Glass Live Streams Surgery," Mashable, Vignesh Ramachandran, Aug. 30, 2013, http://mashable.com/2013/08/30/google-glass-surgery-live-stream/

"Google Glass Delivers New Insight During Surgery," University of California San Francisco, Leland Kim, October 30, 2013, http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/10/109526/surgeon-improves-safety-efficiency-operating-room-google-glass