Is Google Glass here to stay in health care?

Google Glass worn by Alex Pelletier croppedAlexandra Pelletier is a manager in the Innovation Acceleration Programat Boston Children’s Hospital. She directs the FastTrack Innovation in Technology Program, a hospital initiative to accelerate, rapidly develop and deliver innovative clinical software solutions.

Do you know the feeling of opening a new box with technology in it? I’m not a tech geek, but when my Google Glass arrived, with its crisp and simple packaging, my visceral reaction was “this is really cool.” Nonetheless, I’m approaching Glass carefully, because even the best technologies still require humans to use them. That means that they must be easy to use, must connect with other systems seamlessly and must offer value that makes its adoption worthwhile.

Google Glass is gaining some real excitement in health care. Each day my Twitter feed lights up with a new report of a hospital or practice trying it out. Here at Boston Children’s, we too are investigating the use of this technology through the Google Glass Explorer Program (watch Vector for more to come). We see promising potential for Google’s head-mounted display technology to transform communication and access to real-time information.

For those of you who are new to Google Glass, I suggest watching this concept video from Google. Essentially, you’re wearing technology on your head with these features:

  • the ability to send and receive information at eye level
  • a camera to take pictures and stream video
  • touch or voice commands
  • audio readout: emails or text information read aloud by the device
  • an accelerometer to pick up body movement speed and direction
  • a built-in global positioning system (GPS)
  • Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities that provide access to the internet
GlassSurgeon: a sneak preview
Boston Children's Glass Surgeon: a sneak glimpse

The eye-level view differentiates Google Glass from mobile devices, computers or other technology. Google Glass’s lead designer explains the technology as allowing people to “interact with the virtual world without distracting you from the real world…close to your senses, but not blocking them.” Instead of distractedly walking into traffic, heads down looking at their mobile phones (which I’m guilty of myself), people can remain engaged in their physical environment.

That’s certainly a plus. But does it make sense for use in health care?

In many medical settings, there is clear advantage to being hands free, using voice commands to get information and viewing it without the need to interact with another device—think of a clinical team in a sterilized operating room accessing real time, eye-view information. Then imagine team members sharing that information in real time with others for telemedicine or education.

Here are some well-publicized examples so far:

  • Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s pilot of Google Glass in its emergency department (ED). Clinicians can scan Quick Response (QR) codes that are placed on each room to retrieve patient data to display on the Glass. They also are able to page other team members via voice commands.
  • Rhode Island Hospital is piloting the Glass in the ED, using it for telemedicine consults with dermatologists.
  • UC Irvine Medical Center is exploring the use of telemedicine with Google Glass, adding an app to live-stream audio and video securely for remote consults and training.

More great ideas are emerging from MedTech Boston’s Google Glass Challenge, which will announce its final results on April 21. (In full disclosure, Boston Children’s has two physicians on the judging panel.)

While most of these explorations and pilots seem to be positioned for doctors, I can imagine head-mounted devices used by other care providers and eventually by patients. Getting real-time audio or eye-level information could come in handy as patients manage their health in real time, and could drive behavior change. I can imagine patients getting feedback from wearable blood glucose sensors, for example, or nutritional advice as the health “angel” on their shoulder scans the food they’re eating. In a pilot in Australia, breastfeeding mothers used the Glass to connect with lactation counselors who watched and gave advice.

Already, there seems to be heavy investing in the technology. Apple reportedly has patented a head-mounted display, as has Samsung with its Galaxy Glass. As more tech heavyweights enter this space, prices will come down, and Glass-like products will be available in retail locations like Best Buy. At that point, the consumer market will be poised to take off.

So I predict head-mounted displays like Google Glass are here to stay. But we are at the very beginning of the innovation diffusion curve of this technology, with several challenges to solve before it truly becomes ubiquitous:

  • Wearing Google Glass for too long causes the glass to heat up and leads to headaches, an issue we’re now trying to tackle at Boston Children’s.
  • Health care institutions are hawks about security and privacy of health information. Software adaptations will be needed to ensure compliance with HIPAA requirements.
  • Comfort and usability still need work. I already wear glasses and have a small head, so it’s hard for me to use the Glass comfortably. A colleague has vision issues with his right eye, where the displays now appear, so will need to wait until Glass is available for left-eye view.

Given all these hedges, I’ve been surprised to see so many pilots so quickly in health care. This demonstrates a real excitement and a clear need in health care for faster, better ways to get information and communicate on the go. Google Glass might be part of the technological nirvana health care is waiting for.