DURHAM, N.C. — Before scrubbing in on a recent Tuesday morning, Dr. Selene Parekh, an orthopedic surgeon here at Duke Medical Center, slipped on a pair of sleek, black glasses — Google Glass, the wearable computer with a built-in camera and monitor.
He gave the Internet-connected glasses a voice command to start recording and turned to the middle-aged motorcycle crash victim on the operating table. He chiseled through bone, repaired a broken metatarsal and drilled a metal plate into the patient’s foot.
Dr. Parekh has been using Glass since last year, when Google began selling test versions of its device to thousands of handpicked “explorers” for $1,500. He now uses it to record and archive all of his surgeries at Duke, and soon he will use it to stream live feeds of his operations to hospitals in India as a way to train and educate orthopedic surgeons there.
“In India, foot and ankle surgery is about 40 years behind where we are in the U.S.,” he said. “So to be able to use Glass to broadcast this and have orthopedic surgeons around the world watch and learn from expert surgeons in the U.S. would be tremendous.”
At Duke and other hospitals, a growing number of surgeons are using Google Glass to stream their operations online, float medical images in their field of view, and hold video consultations with colleagues as they operate.
Software developers, too, have created programs that transform the Glass projector into a medical dashboard that displays patient vital signs, urgent lab results and surgical checklists.
“I’m sure we’re going to use this in medicine,” said Dr. Oliver J. Muensterer, a pediatric surgeon who recently published the first peer-reviewed study on the use of Glass in clinical medicine. “Not the current version, but a version in the future that is specially made for health care with all the privacy, hardware and software issues worked out.”
For his study, published in The International Journal of Surgery, Dr. Muensterer wore the device daily for four weeks at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in New York. He found that filming rapidly drains the battery and that the camera — which is mounted straight ahead — does not point directly at what he is looking at when he is hunched over a patient with his eyes tilted downward.
He also had to keep the device disconnected from the Internet most of the time to prevent patient data and images from being automatically uploaded to the cloud. “Once it’s on the cloud, you don’t know who has access to it,” Dr. Muensterer said.
Google has yet to announce a release date for Glass, and the company declined to comment on how many of its testers were doctors or affiliated with hospitals. But “demand is high,” said Nate Gross, a co-founder of Rock Health, a medical technology incubator. “I probably get asked every few days by another doctor who wants to somehow incorporate Glass into their practice.”
And already, outside hospitals, privacy concerns have led some bars and restaurants to ban the devices. Legislators have proposed restrictions on the use of Google Glass while driving, citing concerns about distraction. Doctors, too, are raising similar concerns.
The Glass projector is slightly above the user’s right eye, allowing doctors to see medical information without turning away from patients. But the display can also be used to see email and surf the web, potentially allowing doctors to take multitasking to dangerous new levels, said Dr. Peter J. Papadakos at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who has published articles on electronic distractions in medicine.
“Being able to see your laparoscopic images when you’re operating face to face instead of looking across the room at a projection screen is just mind-bogglingly fantastic,” he said. “But the downside is you don’t want that same surgeon interacting with social media while he’s operating.”
Indeed, similar technology has not always had the smoothest results. Studies have found, for example, that navigational displays can help surgeons find tumors, but they can also induce a form of tunnel vision, or perceptual blindness, that makes them more likely to miss unrelated lesions or problems in surrounding tissue. And in aviation, pilots who wear head-mounted displays that show crucial flight information can lose sight of what is happening outside their windshields, said Dr. Caroline G. L. Cao, who studies image-guided surgery at Wright State University.
“Pilots can get so focused on aligning the icons that help them land the plane,” she said, “that they miss another plane that is crossing the runway.”
One doctor who does not allow the device in his practice, Dr. Matthew S. Katz, the medical director of radiation oncology at Lowell General Hospital in Massachusetts, said that security and distractions were primary concerns. A doctor wearing Glass could accidentally stream confidential medical information online, he said, and patients might not feel comfortable with their doctors wearing cameras on their faces.
Until Glass has been better studied in health care and equipped with safeguards, Dr. Katz said, doctors should be forced to check their wearable computers at the clinic door.
“From an ethical standpoint, the bar is higher for use in a medical setting,” said Dr. Katz, who is also an outside adviser for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media. “As a doctor, I have to make sure that what I’m doing is safe and secure for my patients — ‘First, do no harm.’ Until I am, I don’t want it in my practice.”
Bakul Patel, the senior policy adviser at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices, said the agency would regulate only those Glass software programs that function as medical devices, the same approach it takes on health applications on hand-held devices.
“The glasses have been on our radar and we’re excited about it,” Mr. Patel said.
Hospitals that are experimenting with Glass say they are doing so very carefully — obtaining patient consent before procedures, using encrypted networks, and complying with the federal regulation that protects patient privacy, known as Hipaa.
Medical software developers say they, too, have security and privacy in mind. Pristine, a company based in Austin, Tex., created an app that lets emergency room nurses and doctors beam in specialists for consultations. The company plans to sell a customized version of Glass directly to hospitals. It erases Google’s software and configures the glasses with its own Hipaa-compliant programs.
Another company, Augmedix, which has done pilot tests of Glass at medical centers in the San Francisco area, said patients were informed that their doctors would be wearing the device. In a study of 200 cases, only two or three patients asked that their doctors remove it, said Ian K. Shakil, a co-founder of Augmedix.
Some hospitals see Glass as a relatively low-cost and versatile innovation, much like smartphones and tablets, which more than half of all health care providers use to get access to patient data and other medical information.
But hand-held devices are not very useful in the sterile world of surgery. Because Glass is voice-activated and hands-free, it may be particularly well suited for the surgical suite, where camera-guided instruments, robotics and 3D navigation systems have been commonplace for years.
Dr. Pierre Theodore, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of California, San Francisco, calls wearable computers “a game changer.”
“In surgery, Google Glass is incredibly illuminating,” said Dr. Theodore, who uses Glass to float X-rays and CT scans in his field of view at the operating table. “It helps you pinpoint what you’re looking for, so you don’t have to shift your attention away from the operation to look at a monitor somewhere else.”
At Indiana University Health, Dr. Paul P. Szotek, a Level 1 trauma surgeon, is developing an app for Glass for use by paramedics.
The app streams a live feed from the glasses to the closest emergency rooms, so that doctors can see accident victims at the scene and give paramedics potentially lifesaving instructions — like when to go directly to a Level 1 trauma center.
“Last year, I lost a lady on the table from a spleen injury that was absolutely survivable because she was taken to a local hospital and then the delay was over two hours to get her to me,” Dr. Szotek said. “With this wearable technology, we’ll be able to assess patients on the scene and decrease the mortality associated with trauma significantly.”
Dr. Szotek met with Google in March to discuss his software, called 1st Sight. He and other Glass-wearing surgeons recently founded a group — the International Society for Wearable Technology in Healthcare — that is holding its first meeting in Indianapolis in July.
At Duke, Dr. Parekh performs back-to-back surgeries on most days, wearing the Glass headset as he moves from one patient to the next.
About six years ago, he founded a charity with the goal of advancing foot and ankle surgery in India. He travels there every year with a team of expert surgeons to hold clinics and training sessions for local orthopedic surgeons.
In January, at a conference in Jaipur, Dr. Parekh performed surgery and used Glass to stream the procedure on his personal website. That day, the site drew in so many visitors from India and elsewhere that it crashed.
“I’ve been even more excited about Google Glass since then,” he said.