As an emergency room physician rushes to a patient, he glances at a QR code by the door to the patient's room and immediately can see the man's medical history and the nurse's notes.
The information, which the the doctor can see without ever looking away from the patient, may help save the patient's life, and was accessed on Google Glass .
This isn't a dream scenario for doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. ER doctors there are four months into a pilot program where they are using Google's computerized eyeglasses to help treat patients.
Dr. Steve Horng glances at a QR code using Google Glass to retrieve patient information at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. (Photo: Danielle Duffey/BIDMC)
Google's wearable computer, which is still in beta testing, is helping these doctors connect with their patients while accessing the information they need to treat them quickly.
"The grand challenge of health IT has always been about delivering the right information to the right person at the right time," said Dr. Steven Horng, an emergency physician and assistant director of emergency informatics at Beth Israel. "A lot of our interaction is that connection and making patients feel comfortable. The more we can maintain that eye contact and that conversation, the better the patient feels. Google Glass helps us do that."
Google Glass brings the data to the doctors, instead of the doctors going to the data.
Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said he sees a big future for wearable computers in the healthcare field.
"Wearables, like Glass, in the ER, if done correctly, could be a breakthrough for patients and hospital staff," Moorhead said. "It saves time and makes the attending doctor more focused on the patient than the computer."
Beth Israel, a teaching hospital that handles three quarters of a million patient visits every year, has been running a pilot program with Google Glass since December.
The program started with two emergency room doctors sharing four pairs of the computerized eyeglasses. Last week, the hospital expanded the program to include 10 doctors.
The program next will likely expand to cardiology and surgical groups. For the first six months or so, however, the focus is solely on the ER, said John Halamka, a physician and the CIO at Beth Israel.
Halamka said 10 years ago he imagined a device that doctors could use to give them critical patient information -- medical history, x-rays, medication lists, nurses' notes, lab reports -- while they're interacting with the patient.
Before they got Google Glass, which has a small screen that sits above the user's right eye, doctors at the hospital were using iPads. The tablets have their own issues, though. Doctors would periodically forget them and since the devices were handhelds, the iPads had to be continually sanitized.
To look at an iPad, doctors have to look down to get the medical information they need, breaking eye contact with the patient.
"On a day-to-day basis, it's not unusual for a patient to say they don't remember the dosage of a medication or they can't remember when they had a tetanus shot," Horng told Computerworld. "For us, it means we have to leave the room and look up the information when we'd really rather just keep talking to the patient and keep that conversation going. Even if there's a computer in the room, you have to turn on the computer and log in. It takes time and you often have to turn away from the patient."
For Beth Israel, Google Glass is a way to better patient care, and physicians at other hospitals are interested in trying the digitized eyewear.
Halamka said he receives about 20 requests a day from other healthcare organizations looking for information about his Google Glass program.
Surgical teams at the UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, Calif., for example, are using Google Glass and customized apps for live streaming audio and video that help doctors supervise surgical residents.
Doctors there also are considering a program where visiting nurses could use Glass to enable doctors in the hospital to see patients and get the nurse's real-time observations, according to a report in the Orange County Register.
Dr. Steve Horng says he operates Google Glass by voice command but can also use the device's touch capability as a backup. (Photo: Danielle Duffey/BIDMC)
Ryan Junee, co-founder of San Francisco-based Wearable Intelligence, the company that built the Android apps for Beth Israel's Glass program, said they are in talks with "many of the top hospitals in the U.S." about integrating their software for wearables. Junee wouldn't specify how many hospitals or which ones have reached out to them.
Wearable Intelligence was a key player in making Glass not only usable for the emergency room doctors at Beth Israel but also in making the device compliant with hospital and federal privacy and security rules, such as HIPAA.
Halamka said most of the apps that come with Google Glass were removed from the device. For example, doctors are unable to use Glass to take photos or video because of concerns that the images would be shared in a way that violated the patient's privacy. Physicians also can't use Glass to tweet or read email. Doctors primarily operate the device by voice command but retain the touch capability as a backup.
Beth Israel also made sure that patient information, such as medical records or medication lists, aren't stored locally on Glass. The doctors can access the information but it's stored on the hospital's secured servers.
For tighter security, Halamka and his team set up Glass so only specific doctors can use the device, and they can only use it inside the emergency room.
"I walk into the emergency room and put on my Glass and push the on button," Halamka said. "It's immediately context aware that it's in the Beth Israel secure location because it has only one function -- show emergency department information. If you take it outside Beth Israel, it won't function. It has to bond with our enterprise network as a secure accepted device. Outside the doors, it won't work."
He added that each doctor in the program has a specific user code. The doctor puts on Glass and looks at his own ID badge so the device recognizes that he's an accepted user.
Horng said there were some technical challenges adapting Glass for hospital use. The biggest problem was the battery limitations for a device that needs to have its screen on all the time. To solve this problem, an external battery pack was added that lasts more than 14 hours, which gets the doctors through a normal ER shift. The battery pack connects with Glass via a micro USB cable.The pack is carried in the doctor's pocket.
When a patient is admitted to the emergency room, he is assigned to a specific room. Each room has a QR code near the door, so when the doctor approaches the room with a new patient, the doctor simply looks at the QR code and Glass will recognize that patient and retrieve his medical information.
With the room codes, Glass also knows where the doctor is.
"If you lose Google Glass, there's no data on them," Halamka noted. "Without being in the emergency department with a badge and in a room, you could not use the device to retrieve information."
Both Halamka and Horng noted that not one patient has asked the doctors not to use Glass with them.
"We thought some patients might [be adverse to it], so we wanted to give them an opportunity to not have the device used with them. But they're curious about it and grateful that we have better access to their medical information," Horng said. "Once we had a conversation about disabling the camera and other features, people were very receptive to it."
Horng also credits Glass with helping him save at least one patient's life.
In January -- a month into the Glass pilot program -- a patient arrived at the Beth Israel emergency room with a massive brain bleed.
"That's very critical and requires immediate treatment," Horng said. "The patient's blood pressure was sky high and I needed to lower it to slow the bleed, but the patient said he was allergic to some blood pressure medicines. To access that information would normally mean leaving the room, but without stopping, I was able to access that information [on Glass] and start him on the appropriate medicine."
Checking the patient's list of medications on Glass also showed Horng that the patient was taking a blood thinner, which was making the brain bleed even worse.
"Administering an antidote to blood thinners is something you have seconds to do," Horng added. "And it could mean the difference between [the patient] walking out of the hospital and not walking out of the hospital or being able to talk or being completely nonverbal."
Because the doctor could quickly access the records without pausing from working with the patient, he said the patient not only survived but "did remarkably well."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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