Google Glass could become a powerful platform in healthcare, allowing providers to quickly access patient data, videoconference other clinicians and perform a number of other tasks. But technical limitations and regulatory hurdles mean it could still be years before the tool is used on a wide scale.
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Philips Healthcare recently teamed up with Accenture to push its existing Android-based patient data monitoring application to Glass. The functioning medical app has not cleared any regulatory process yet and is still considered part of a demonstration project, so isn't going to be on the market anytime soon. But Tony Jones, chief marketing officer for Philips Healthcare’s patient care and clinical informatics business, said the project proves the tool has the potential to keep doctors focused on the patient and off devices.
You go right to the question of 'Is the potential benefit more than the potential risk?'
Dan Riskin, M.D.,
board-certified surgeon and CEO, Health Fidelity
"In a lot of cases in the hospital, the feedback loop is coming off monitoring devices," Jones said. "It'd be great if the monitor was in the ideal position, but it's often not."
Still, he said, neither Glass nor Philips' medical app is ready for wide use in healthcare. For one thing, Glass does not currently give users the ability to control applications with voice commands, as it is eventually supposed to. Users can only call up applications with their voice. This limits the functionality of Glass apps.
But beyond that, developers and end users need to think more about how they want applications to work. For example, Jones said it will be important to get alerts right. There is an obvious role for alerts in monitoring applications, but Jones said these alerts would have to walk a fine line of being noticeable but not distracting in the Glass environment.
Security is another consideration. Dan Riskin, M.D., a board-certified surgeon and CEO of the big data company Health Fidelity, said the basic things to keep in mind when it comes to using Glass are more or less the same as using smartphones or tablets in a healthcare setting. The device is only as secure as the network it's on. Hospitals that have very secure networks shouldn't have too much to worry about when streaming data to the device.
But a lot of the uses being talked about for Glass involve leveraging its video camera during the delivery of care. Riskin said patients will have to decide whether there is enough value in having their procedures recorded to justify this privacy compromise. He said some patients may see a great deal of value in having an objective record of their doctor's performance. But others may feel the risk of this video being leaked from the doctor's office outweighs the benefit. "You go right to the question of 'Is the potential benefit more than the potential risk?'" Riskin said.
Lynne Dunbrack, research vice president with IDC Health Insights, said interoperability may be another stumbling block to implementing Glass in healthcare settings. EHR vendors in particular are entirely focused on keeping up with the requirements of meaningful use. They aren't necessarily working to make sure their systems are compatible with every new emerging mobile device, Dunbrack said. This will delay the implementation of Glass in clinical settings.
There is an undeniable interest in mobile apps and wearable devices, Dunbrack said. But she expects the industry won't see any commercially available Glass applications until the end of 2014 or later.
"It really increases the mobility of clinicians," Dunbrack said. "[But] it's still pretty early for commercial availability."
Riskin said he thinks there will be ongoing development of medical apps for Google Glass over the next couple years. But he feels regulatory uncertainty will make it difficult for developers to know exactly what the device can legally be used for. Part of the reason for this uncertainty is the fact that it is still unclear whether the FDC will continue to regulate mobile medical applications or another agency like the ONC might take over.
"I think for the next couple years it will be a bit of a Wild West," Riskin said, "and the only protection we have is that the high-integrity firms will be their own watchdogs, because at the moment we don't have a watchdog assigned."
Even with these hurdles, hospitals are interested in what Glass can do for their physicians. Jones said after Philips announced its demonstration project a number of providers contacted him wanting to know how they can use Glass and when a fully functioning app might become available. Jones said it may still be a couple years before Philips makes a Glass application available industry-wide. But the fact that the project got people talking about the technology is a sign that things are moving in that direction.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Tony Jones’ correct title with Philips Healthcare.