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

An attendee is fitted with Google Glass during the Google I/O developer conference on May 17, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Eight members of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus sent a letter to Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page seeking answers to privacy questions and concerns surrounding Google's photo and video-equipped glasses called 'Google Glass'. The panel wants to know if the high tech eyeware could infringe on the privacy of Americans. Google has been asked to respond to a series of questions by June 14.
National Journal
Alexis Hauk
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Alexis Hauk
Oct. 3, 2013, 4:30 a.m.

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.

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