Google Glass in the operating room? One surgeon’s review

Dr. Pierre Theodore, a cardiothoracic surgeon, puts Google Glass technology to the test in the OR.

Topics: fast company, google glass, Surgery, operating room, technology, Health,

For a little over three months now, Dr. Pierre Theodore, a cardiothoracic surgeon, has been using Google Glass in the operating room. Although he’s tapped the functionality during procedures on just 10 patients, for various cancer mass removals, fluid removal, and a lung restoration, Theodore (who we first wrote about in August) may have more experience using Glass in a serious medical setting than any other doctor in the world.

His conclusion so far: the technology is indeed useful in the operating room as an adjunct device in delivering necessary information, but it still has miles to go as a product.

The idea for using Google Glass during surgeries came up when he and a colleague at UCSF Medical Center discussed how to implement the device in scenarios where data must be precise and retrieved quickly. Currently, when surgeons need to see X-ray images, they walk away from the operating table to a flat-screen mounted on a wall on another side of the room. “Right now I have a 48-inch TV screen mounted in the back of the operating room that’s 15 feet away, and, among hospitals, that is as good as it gets,” Theodore told Fast Company in advance of a presentation at the Dreamforce conference.

“Most surgeons will tell you that there have been times when they were not able to access the radiographic images when they needed it,” he said. “This could potentially compromise an operation.”

When there is no screen in the operating theater, surgeons may have to move to another room to check X-ray images on an office computer. Having X-rays immediately available without leaving the patient aids in concentration. The small Google Glass view from the corner of Theodore’s right eye is equivalent to seeing a 24-inch monitor from eight feet away, he noted. While there is no proof that Google Glass aids in a higher percentage of successful surgeries, having such immediate and close access to the data “helps confirm your decisions during surgery,” he says.

That’s the promise, at least. In practice, however, Theodore discovered a couple of barriers that will prevent Google Glass from being used in a widespread way by surgeons. In planning for the pilot, Theodore spent a month learning how to operate and feel comfortable manipulating his glass-ware. That’s when he discovered that not all of the operating rooms in his hospital had an optimal Wi-Fi signal, and he had to select the one that offered the best throughput.

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Glass relies on wireless Internet connectivity and does not provide point-to-point transmission between an in-house computer and the device, which would be ideal for this setting. Localized communication would also solve another problem: maintaining the privacy of patient data. Before the trial began, Theodore had to scrub the X-rays clean of any personal patient information since the images had to be sent via the UCSF campus-wide network.

He also found that Glass is weak in responding to voice commands. As a result, Theodore placed a technician in the operating room to keep things running smoothly. The technician would transmit up to a dozen X-rays to him during the procedure. (Theodore stressed that he does not multi-task while he is examining the X-ray image as viewing the screen requires full attention with both eyes.) The X-rays in Glass were sometimes hard to see–they look best in low ambient light, just as a movie is best viewed in a darkened movie theater. But he couldn’t dim the lights during surgery, so the tech would enlarge the images as needed.

Finally, when he was done looking at the X-rays a technician had to swipe the right arm of the device to turn it off. Given that utmost sanitary conditions must occur in an operating room, in the future he would like to see Google make a hands-free version so he could issue voice commands without ever having to touch the device.

Despite these problems, Theodore believes Google Glass could become an effective communication tool for doctors. Surgeons in the U.S. could transmit real-time operation videos to their counterparts in Haiti, for example. But for the time being Google is focusing on consumer adoption, which means he is more likely to see specialized wearable headsets for clinicians, like the Evena Medical Eyes-On Glass System, before Glass gets an app for the OR.

There was one barrier Theodore expected to encounter that turned out to be a non-issue: patient consent. During consultations prior to surgery, Theodore showed each patient how Google Glass worked to make them feel more comfortable with him using the device during their procedure. Everyone gave consent and were glad to be part of tech history.

It might not be as easy for every surgeon–this was in San Francisco after all.

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