Google Glass might help doctors save time, improve surgical efficiency

When Pelu Tran and Ian Shakil tried out Google Glass for the first time last year, the technology was compelling enough that they both quit their day jobs.

Tran, then a third-year Stanford University medical student, and Shakil, a business development consultant at a startup, saw in Google's augmented-reality glasses a way to free up doctors' time to spend more of it with their patients.

The pair founded Augmedix, a startup dedicated to harnessing the power of Glass for medicine.

Glass is essentially a hands-free, head-mounted computer, tricked-out with amenities including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a camera and voice activation.

Like the smartphone, computer and other technological advances before it, Glass is hailed by Tran, Shakil and others as having the potential to make doctors' lives easier while improving efficiency and accuracy in medicine.

What if, for example, a doctor could easily videotape an entire patient visit and then have the information automatically transferred to medical records? A doctor would spend minimal time shuffling medical information from one place to another, and a more accurate record would be created to help with diagnoses and treatment down the line.

Surgery is a huge area of interest for Glass. The technology companies Philips and Accenture have together developed a prototype of a tool that would use Glass to display a patient's vital signs in near real time directly into the surgeon's field of vision. The idea is to put all of the patient information a doctor might need right in front of his face, available on voice command.

Even so, some critics have derided Glass as just another toy unlikely to catch on. In the realm of medicine, specifically, others have raised concerns about patient privacy and potential cost of the device. The developer cost was upward of $1,000, but it's expected to retail for less.

For its part, Augmedix's goal is to develop a system that takes Glass' audiovisual stream and translates that information directly into a patient's medical record, eliminating much of the time a doctor spends typing notes into a computer. The doctor would have that much more time to focus on a patient's problem, Tran said.

"Really, the biggest problem in health care is that physicians are no longer able to just take care of patients," he said.

The idea is to improve upon a relatively small piece of the health care process for a big impact. At Augmedix's four pilot sites, doctors reported spending almost equal amounts of time on documentation as on patient care. Using the Augmedix system, Tran said, that amount of time was reduced to about a minute per patient.

Researchers elsewhere are experimenting with other medical uses for Glass.

At University of California, San Francisco, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Pierre Theodore has begun a pilot program using Glass to assist in surgery.

Theodore performed his first Glass-assisted surgery in August, using Glass to simultaneously view a patient's X-rays while performing a procedure to remove fluid from the patient's deflated lung.

Fluid pockets can be difficult to see with the human eye, making X-rays vital in guiding a surgeon throughout the procedure. Glass eliminated the need to glance back and forth between the patient and a computer screen, a small detail that allowed him better concentration during surgery. In short: It was much more efficient.

Other doctors have suggested Glass could be used to consult on patients remotely by streaming real-time video to physicians who are not immediately present.

Glass is expected to be released in 2014. For now it's only available to so-called Glass Explorers who have applied to test-drive the device.

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