Will Google Glass Really Help Doctors Save Lives?

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VentureBeat reports that while wearables like Google Glass are expected to improve clinical outcomes, so far, there have been few studies aimed at providing empirical evidence for the theory. But in a new study, conducted by Stanford Medical School and VitalMedicals, which makes the VitalStream real-time vitals app for Google Glass, 20 Stanford residents performed surgeries on dummies to test the hypothesis. Their performance was demonstrably better when wearing Google Glass during the procedure.

According to an abstract (PDF) published by VitalMedicals (a full paper will be published “soon”) residents were asked to perform simulations of routine procedures, either a thoracostomy tube placement using Laerdal’s SimMan patient simulator, or a bronchoscopy with CAE Healthcare’s EndoscopyVR simulator. Then, without residents’ prior knowledge, a sudden complication would occur — hypotension during a thoracostomy and critical desaturation during a bronchoscopy — and require a response.

Traditional vital-sign monitors were available during all procedures, and residents were randomly selected to carry out the procedures with and without VitalStream on Google Glass. Those who had access to live streaming of vital signs via Google Glass were able to more quickly recognize critical changes in vital signs. As the abstract explains:

“During bronchoscopy, the experimental group used traditional monitors 88.2% less (p=0.001), yet recognized critical desaturation 8.8 seconds earlier than the control group (64.6s vs.73.4s, p=ns). Similarly, time to recognition of hypotension during thoracostomy tube placement occurred 10.5 seconds earlier in the experimental versus control group (31.3s vs. 42.8s, p=ns). The majority of participants ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that Google Glass increased their situational awareness (64%), was helpful in monitoring vital signs (86%), was easy to use (93%), and has potential to improve patient safety (85%).”

Stanford and VitalMedicals aren’t the only ones looking to trial uses of Google Glass in the hospital and operating room. As The New York Times reported in June, a growing number of surgeons are using Google Glass to stream their operations online, place medical images in their view during procedures, and consult with colleagues via video as they operate. Developers are creating programs to display vital signs, notify surgeons of urgent test results, and even show surgical checklists via Google Glass.

Medical schools like the University of California, Irvine have distributed Google Glass to students, who use the device to access files and reference materials during hospital rotations. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has tested Google Glass in the emergency room, where the device helps doctors simultaneously access patients’ charts and examine them.

Dr. Oliver J. Muensterer, a pediatric surgeon who published the first peer-reviewed study on the use of Google Glass in clinical medicine, told the Times: “I’m sure we’re going to use this in medicine. Not the current version, but a version in the future that is specially made for health care with all the privacy, hardware and software issues worked out.”

For his study, Muensterer wore Google Glass every day for four weeks at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center. While he noted that he found Glass useful for “hands-free photo/videodocumentation, making hands-free telephone calls, looking up billing codes, and internet searches for unfamiliar medical terms or syndromes,” he experienced a number of drawbacks, including “low battery endurance, data protection issues, poor overall audio quality, as well as long transmission latency combined with interruptions and cut-offs during internet videoconferencing.”

He also noted that the camera, which is mounted to look straight ahead, doesn’t point directly at what he’s looking at when bent over a patient with his eyes titled downward.  He chose to keep the device disconnected from the Internet to prevent data and images from being uploaded automatically to the cloud.

While he said that Google Glass has “clear utility” in a clinical setting, improvements to the hardware and apps are necessary for further use. “Before it can be recommended universally for physicians and surgeons, substantial improvements to the hardware are required, issues of data protection must be solved, and specialized medical applications (apps) need to be developed,” he said.

But the Stanford study showed promising results and demonstrates that specific applications can be developed to give doctors all of the information they need exactly when they need it — which could have truly significant implications for patients in their care.

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