Rhode Island ER first to test Google Glass on medical conditions

Doctors envision ambulance crews someday using the technology to provide real-time video and audio to hospitals

By Tom Mooney
The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Beginning Friday, Rhode Island Hospital’s emergency department became the first in the nation, officials say, to use Google Glass technology to stream live images of a patient’s medical condition to a consulting specialist located elsewhere.

If an ensuing six-month feasibility study is successful, project coordinator Dr. Paul Porter envisions an ambulance crew someday responding to a stroke victim, using the eyeglass technology to provide real-time video and audio to a neurologist back at the hospital who could then order a clot-busting, brain-saving drug immediately.

“That would be like the Holy Grail,” says Porter. “But we’re just at the beginning; you have to start somewhere.”

For now the hospital will test the technology only with emergency room patients suffering skin rashes or other dermatological afflictions and who volunteer to be part of the study.

The reason, says Porter, is because the standard of care now for such problems is a simple visual inspection and asking patients questions, such as, “Does it itch?”

This way if any kinks in the technology develop — a lost video or audio feed, for example — patient care won’t be compromised.

Porter was the force behind the hospital soliciting Google to see if its latest Glass technology could be used in what the doctor calls “tele-medicine.”

Google Glass is a special pair of glasses equipped with smartphone components and a tiny transparent screen that appears on the right lens. It allows the wearer, largely through voice commands, to link to the Internet, access GPS and to send live audio or visual images of what the wearer is seeing at that moment.

Porter has been interested in tele-medicine since 2011 when, as an Army reservist, he ran an emergency room in Baghdad. Because of the dangers of moving soldiers around, Porter often emailed images of soldiers’ wounds to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., where specialists could evaluate the injuries and suggest treatment.

“I’ve had [tele-medicine] on my mind ever since, looking for the opportunity to do something here with it,” he says.

Then last December, Porter was on a plane, reading about Google Glass, when he realized the opportunity he was looking for.

“I was so excited,” Porter says. “I just started contacting Google up and down the [corporate] chain.”

With the help of two Rhode Island Hospital residents, Peter Chai and Roger Wu, the team prepared a research proposal, received approval from hospital officials and began working with experts at Pristine, a Texas startup company, which last year developed the only form of Google Glass that meets strict federal patient privacy laws.

In essence, Pristine produced a stripped-down version of Glass. It can’t link to the Internet or store video or audio. It offers only live and encrypted video and audio. The consulting specialist, using a small tablet, can see and hear exactly what the emergency room doctor is seeing and hearing, as well as speak to the patient.

The special Glass version doesn’t store photos, video or audio, since Porter saw those capabilities as an unnecessary risk to patient confidentiality.

“But it streams it in an encrypted way to our remote dermatology physicians,” he said.

Porter says not only will the technology provide better medical care but it will likely save patients the cost of a second or follow-up visit, since the specialist they would normally be referred to participates in the initial emergency room visit.

Hospital spokeswoman Ellen Slingsby says the emergency room sees about 100 patients a month with skin afflictions who require a dermatological consult. That should be a sufficient pool of prospective volunteers, Porter says, to adequately test Glass in the next six months.

The hospital purchased two sets of Glass eyeglasses, tablets and software for about $2,400 each.

While other hospitals and health-care companies are experimenting with Google Glass — educating a classroom of residents, for example, who can watch a surgeon work from the doctor’s perspective — Porter says this is the first initiative where Glass is being used for real-time emergency room care.

“No one is as far along as us,” says Porter. “We think this has tremendous potential to make care better for people, faster and eventually cheaper. … We’re not there yet but eventually we’ll get there.”

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