Google Glass Delivers New Insight During Surgery

Wearable Computer Technology Could Lead to Better Decision-Making in Operating Room

By Leland Kim


Cardiothoracic surgeon Pierre Theodore, MD, goes into the operating room with one main goal: getting his patient in and out of surgery safely and efficiently.

Technology has offered vast improvements to that process and a new technology gadget, the Google Glass, is taking that a giant step further.  

Google Glass, a 1.8-ounce computer configured like a pair of eyeglasses, already is gaining popularity in the medical world as a teaching tool, recording surgeries from the surgeon’s point of view and live-streaming that view to colleagues or students. But Theodore has found another application for Google Glass that he believes could transform the way doctors perform surgery.

Pierre Theodore dons the Google Glass while performing thoracic surgery.

Pierre Theodore dons the Google Glass while performing thoracic surgery.

The Google Glass allows Pierre Theodore to reference CT or X-ray images without having to turn away from his patient during surgery.

The Google Glass allows Pierre Theodore to reference CT or X-ray images without
having to turn away from his patient during surgery.

Theodore pre-loads CT and X-ray images needed for a procedure, and calls them up in his Google Glass to compare a medical scan with the actual surgical site.

“Often one will remove a tumor that may be deeply hidden inside an organ – the liver, the lung – for example,” said Theodore, who’s also an associate professor in the UCSF School of Medicine. “To be able to have those X-rays directly in your field without having to leave the operating room or to log on to another system elsewhere, or to turn yourself away from the patient in order to divert your attention, is very helpful in terms of maintaining your attention where it should be, which is on the patient 100 percent of the time.”

Theodore is the first surgeon to receive clearance for the use of the tech device as an auxiliary surgical tool in the operating room, by a local Institutional Review Board (IRB), an independent ethical review board designated to approve, monitor and review biomedical research involving human subjects. He was introduced to the idea by Nate Gross, MD, co-founder and medical director of Rock Health, a San Francisco-based startup company focused on the future of digital health.

While wearing the Google Glass, data on the “screen” appears in the wearer’s peripheral vision, Gross explained.

“If my vision is a tic-tac-toe board, it would take one of those upper corners,” he said. “It feels like looking in the rearview mirror of your car. That rear view is always there when I need it, but it’s not there when I don’t.”

UCSF and health care providers across the U.S. are increasingly introducing new technology to transform health. UCSF launched the Center for Digital Health Innovation last year in part to validate the functionality and accuracy of new digital health devices, diagnostics, mobile health applications, and sensor-based technologies and to evaluate whether they bring value and improve outcomes for patients in the ever-evolving health care delivery system.

Making Medical Care Even More Mobile

The key benefit with wearable technology like the Google Glass, according to Theodore, is to make information more accessible to physicians constantly making critical decisions.

“Poor decision-making is a chief source of poor outcomes among patients, he said. “So I think that’s one way the Google Glass can truly help, by providing data when we need the data.”

For instance, physicians can easily call up electronic medical records, a systematic collection of electronic health information about patients that allows clinicians to accurately assess the patient’s medical condition at all times without the need to track down volumes of actual medical record files.

“If you believe in the fundamental assumption that having accurate data in the hands of the clinician leads to better decision-making, then it would seem to me that having that data in a way that’s convenient, comfortable and always present in the presence of the patient can lead to greater efficiencies and better decision-making overall,” Theodore said.

Theodore also believes providing wearable computing technology to surgeons in remote parts of the world could help break down geographic barriers by teaching them modern surgical techniques through live feedback during surgery and providing them resources to observe and learn how surgeries are performed in the United States.

“In the West, we enjoy a high ratios of physicians to patients overall. There are many places in the world in which that’s quite uncommon to have a well-trained medical professional who is delivering care. However there are almost always people who are interested in health care,” Theodore said. “To be able to arm them with the tool to communicate with medical professionals so that there’s an exchange of information has the potential really to improve, in my mind, as the UCSF motto would suggest, to really advance health care worldwide.  And that’s one of the things I find most exciting about this prospect of wearable technology in health care.

“I truly do think that the general concept of wearable computing technology in health care is revolutionary,” Theodore said. “There really is a tremendous number of potential options for its use and it becomes incumbent upon us to try and think about what the various possible use cases might be.”

Photos by Leland Kim

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