Google Glass, despite its dramatic 2012 unveiling via a live skydiving demo, never became a consumer hit, and Google stopped selling the device in January 2015.
Now, a team of doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical School may have discovered a killer app for the device—performing emergency medicine consultations. Glass, it turns out, enables off-site specialists to reliably and accurately observe and diagnose patients in real-time. It may even help first responders triage victims in disaster scenarios.
Hospitals have tried using Glass before. Some efforts involved projecting medical records into a doctor’s field of view, but physicians found the display to be too small to sort through charts and data, among other concerns.
Peter Chai, Kavita Babu, and Edward Boyer, medical toxicologists and emergency medicine physicians at UMMS, hypothesized that it might be more useful to use Glass to send data out rather than pulling it in. “As an emergency physician, you’re really busy and you end up making decisions with your specialists very quickly,” says Chai. “A lot of those times you’re talking to your specialist over the phone, and they’re just hearing verbal descriptions. Everybody wants to be there to see the patient.”
Telemedicine has been gaining popularity in healthcare, yet it typically consists of a computer and camera affixed to a bulky cart rolled from exam room to exam room. A simple head-mounted device with a camera and connectivity, on the other hand, is unobtrusive at the bedside and transmits live, first person images to a specialist anywhere.
Previously, Chai demonstrated the feasbility of using Google Glass in the emergency department of Rhode Island Hospital for dermatology consultations. Last year, the UMMS team successfully tested the use of Glass during toxicology consultations. An emergency medicine resident wore Glass during a bedside evaluation of a patient and transmitted real-time video to a specialist to help with the diagnosis. The consulting toxicologist rated the experience successful in 89 percent of the cases seen, and six patients received antidotes they otherwise would not have. To safeguard patient information in each study, the devices were stripped of all Google software and made HIPAA-compliant by Pristine EyeSight.
Most recently, Chai collaborated with Banner Health in Phoenix, to evaluate the precision and reliabilty of a Google Glass–assisted consultation in a toxicology intensive care unit. Fifty patients at the Banner-University Medical Center Phoenix had an off-site toxicologist record physical examination findings through Google Glass during their bedside examination by a toxicology fellow. The researchers compared the results of the two exams and found a high correlation between them. The study is soon to be published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.
Aaron Skolnik, assistant medical director of Banner Poison & Drug Information Center, who led the study, hopes to eventually use Glass to triage poisoned patients in rural parts of Arizona to determine who should be transferred to the medical center and who should stay at their local hospital for treatment. Though Glass was a flop with consumers, “for medicine, and maybe industrial applications, it’s actually a really great technology,” says Skolnik. “It provides a huge amount of extra data reliably and accurately to a remote person at relatively low cost.”
Despite its potential usability, there are still two big hurdles to overcome before we’ll see ER docs regularly sporting Google Glass. First, it remains murky how physicians will be reimbursed for virtual consultations, a problem that all telemedicine is currently struggling with. Second, healthcare providers are still figuring out how to include telemedicine visits in medical records, such as what type of data to save and how to store it.
As those issue continue to be sorted out, the UMMS team is now planning to test out Glass in the field with first responders as they triage victims at disaster sites. First responders, such as firefighters, often don’t have extensive medical training but are relied upon to triage victims in advance of the arrival of emergency medical technicians. With a wearable head-mounted computer, they could communicate live images and audio to a specialist back at headquarters to assist in a diagnosis. Even in an area lacking Wi-Fi, the responders could carry Wi-Fi hotspots in their pockets to enable communication.
In September and October, the UMMS team will participate in a mock active shooter scenario in Massachusetts, equipping 50 to 60 first responders with Glass to communicate with about 15 disaster physicians and trauma surgeons.
“The end goal of all this is to develop a suite of sensors and technology that allows us to respond to patients remotely,” says Chai. There’s the added perk that ER docs could use a technology makeover, he notes with a laugh. “We’re the only profession that still uses pagers.”
Megan is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts, specializing in the life sciences and biotechnology. She was previously a health columnist for the Boston Globe and has contributed to Newsweek, Scientific American, and Nature, among others. She is the co-author of a college biology textbook, “Biology Now,” published by W.W. Norton. Megan received an M.S. from the Graduate Program in Science Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a B.A. at Boston College, and worked as an educator at the Museum of Science, Boston.