When it comes to Google Glass, there are a wide range of opinions on its application in healthcare. For some, Glass is destined to be worn by every single physician, nurse, and allied health professional that comes within 50 feet of a patient. For others, Glass is destined for the dustbin of medical history, another example of a solution in search of a problem.

Not only have we had the opportunity to try out Glass around the hospital, we’ve also been keeping track of how others are testing it out in clinical settings. In the past year or so, we’ve seen a few themes emerge when it comes to areas that Glass may actually find clinical utility. Here are the three areas where clinicians may someday find themselves wearing Glass.

Procedures & Surgery

Among the first uses of Glass in healthcare was in the operating room, when a surgeon broadcast the placement of a PEG tube using Google Hangout. Pristine, a Texas based start-up, is piloting a HIPAA-compliant platform for streaming audio and video from Glass. It is not hard to imagine how a surgeon or other proceduralist could use this to get intra-operative second opinions or advice. It could also help with training by allowing a senior surgeon to more closely supervise a trainee, particularly when working in a small operating field.

Aside from just streaming, Accenture and Philips recently demonstrated a prototype system which streams live vital signs data to a heads-up display on Google Glass. This concept could be extended to display many other types of data, allowing the operator to call up, say, a CT scan or a prior operative report when needed.

When we tried out Glass during procedures, we were pleasantly surprised by a number of features. First, the voice recognition worked great even when you are fully scrubbed. That’s probably thanks to the bone conduction transducer employed by the device. Second, it was pretty unobtrusive in terms of our ability to view the procedure field.

Care in the Field

Another application that has been explored is use in the field and with medical triage. Here again, the streaming functionality could be useful in a number of settings by allowing, for example, an ER physician to see the patient en route to their ER and assist the EMS provider caring for the patient.

Also, given programs like the Blue Button initiative that give patient greater access to their medical information, Glass could be enormously helpful. For those not familiar, the Blue Button initiative is a federal program which allows patients to access their medical information. Humetrix has developed a system in which patients are given a QR code that, when scanned, allows access to a synopsis of their medical records. Imagine here a scenario where a Glass-wearing EMT arrives on scene, looks at a QR code, and is instantly given a synopsis of their medical history. Such a tool could also be used in situations where quick triage is important, such as in disaster settings or even crowded ERs.

Diagnostics

One application which surprised us a bit more than the others was diagnostic testing. Researchers in the Ozcan lab, based at UCLA, have demonstrated how Glass can be used in the analysis of rapid diagnostic tests at the point of care. Basically, they used tests in which a sample is applied to a strip and generates a color change – the user then snaps a picture on Glass, the image is sent to central server for processing, and the result is sent back.

This use would obviously only work for a subset of tests but, with the right tests, could have a significant impact. Consider tests for water-born parasites, malaria, HIV, or other infectious diseases common in remote, resource-poor areas. Before you ask, these are not all tests where there is a completely visually obvious color change; rather they produce a continuous distribution of results where interpretation is not obvious.

Conclusion

Glass, and the plethora of similar devices that are sure to follow, has interesting potential but the applications that progress to actual clinical implementation remain to be seen. For some of these applications it’s likely that market forces will ultimately make the decision rather than objective clinical evaluation. For others, like use with diagnostic testing, systematic evaluation will be critical to demonstrate better efficacy and lower cost than other strategies.