Google Glass: Technology in Healthcare

With what seemed to be the demise of Google Glass as a consumer product, we spoke to a BMI consultant, Shafi Ahmed, who first used Glass to stream a live operation in early 2014 to get his thoughts on the impact of new technology within healthcare.

Dr Shafi Ahmed is a Consultant General, Laparoscopic & Colorectal Surgeon at BMI's London Independent and City Medical Hospitals, and the youngest member elected to The Council of Surgeons of England. He gained international attention last year for his innovative use of Google Glass during an operation.

Here, we discuss with Dr Ahmed how Google Glass contributed as a teaching aid, and the bigger question of how he sees evolving technology driving the direction of the medical industry.

What inspired you to perform surgery using Google Glass?

Operation
What I've always been concerned about is how I can teach better. It's been at the back of my mind now for many years that when you conduct an operation you are around a table, and may have one or two trainees around you.

In this tight space everyone is trying to get a look in, so I'm limited in how many people I can train. I can really only train the person standing next to me, and also remember I am really focused on the patient as well.

The other thing I think about is the medical students in the room who can only really see the back of me, and what they can see of the surgery depends on the angle that they are standing at.

This limits how much they can see and ultimately learn. I always thought we can do better in terms of educating these surgeons. I saw an opportunity in this new technology, Google Glass, to educate my students to a higher level in a more innovative way.

Mr Shafi Ahmed

Mr Shafi Ahmed

Consultant General, Laparoscopic & Colorectal Surgeon

MB BS, FRCS(Eng), FRCS(Ed), FRCSI, FRCS(Gen.Surg)

I've been a consultant for 8 years, working at various hospitals including BMI's The Independent Hospital and City Medical, The Royal London Hospital and St. Barts (Saint Bartholomew's Hospital). I'm a Cancer Specialist, colorectal cancer surgeon, and I was appointed to bring in laparoscopic surgery for colorectal disease. 

For St. Barts Health I am the colorectal cancer lead, and Director for Surgical Training, and Associate Dean of St. Barts London Medical School. 

I've also recently been appointed to The Council of Surgeons of England.

What kind of preparation went into performing this 'live' operation?

Google glass
When this technology came out a couple of years ago it was hard to get hold of a sample. I thought I could use it in an innovative way so had my team phone Google almost every day trying to get hold of a pair. Most of the owners were in North America, so we had to wait a while, but finally, we got hold of one. Because it's a device that didn't have apps or programs to support it we had to tell it what to do, so I gave the challenge to a close group of students to see if they could set it up so we could live stream an operation.

Within one week they came back with a tested solution, so we then found a cancer patient who didn't mind his operation being broadcasted across the globe, and got support from the hospital Director, and Chief Executive of the Royal London Hospital.

This was really a test case - Ethics and the law is one of those things that doesn't change as fast as technology so, although I was keen to push the boundary, I was certainly aware of possible issues around ethics and confidentiality, so, we did our due diligence to make sure everything would work, and everyone would be happy and comfortable.

In terms of risks we were challenging what was deemed traditionally as medically acceptable. But in a good way. My personal opinion is that we should be challenging existing practice and if we want to be ahead, and be at the cutting edge of innovation and technology we need to move these conventional boundaries in a safe manner.

I think there's still an opportunity for teaching clinical and surgical skills with the help of Glass technology.

Can you talk us through what happened?

Surgeon
We invited people online, and ended up with 14,000 people in 1,110 cities from 132 countries tuning in to watch. We also had people watching within the theatre, and a news crew next to me the whole time.

Through a web platform (virtualmedics.org) anyone was able to view every step of my operation, and a public online forum was made available for anyone to type in questions to me. Because the glass itself sits high on your nose, the viewable screen sits slightly higher than your eye line.

This meant that I was able to proceed with the operation whilst being able to see the questions as they were streaming across the Google Glass lenses.

I could then respond to their questions during the procedure, and they could hear any voice responses live through the stream.

It worked very well, and people seemed happy with it. It seemed to capture the imagination of the public and went viral on Twitter, and within 24 hours we had about 50,000 hits on the video.

14,000 people from 132 countries tuned in to watch.

As a consumer device Google Glass seems to have come to the end of its life span, but do you still hope there's a place for it, or Glass software, in medicine?

Couple wearing google glass
I think there's still an opportunity for teaching clinical and surgical skills with the help of Glass technology. It's easy to use and there are other things out there like GoPro etc. but to me Google Glass was the easiest one to use at the time.

For example, the other day I talked to 350 students across London using Google Glass. They each had a surgery pack kit, mobile phone, computer or tablet, at home, so instead of training one person at a time, using Google Glass I was able to teach and interact with hundreds of students at a time.

There is a huge cost involved in teaching one student at a time during a live operation, and with the proliferation of connectivity, using technology like Glass connects me across the globe in a few seconds, cutting out huge costs, and I'm able to reach substantially more students.

This shows the simplicity of the device - that we can open global health education to anyone interested.

I have actually done sessions where my trainees wore Glass around the ward, interacting with my patients whilst I'm somewhere else. I can then give instructions and advice remotely and effectively, and am still able to see all my patients every day.

I could be on the beach in Bahamas and still provide advice and guidance. Most physicians as you know want to be there for our patients, we don't walk away, it's not who we are, we want to see our patients as much as we can.

We want to be ahead, and be at the cutting edge of innovation and technology

How do you see technology evolving and shaping the medical world within the next 3-5 years?

It is going to shape it enormously, in five years technology will revolutionise what we do. There will be an increase in paperless records and documents, and devices such as Glass will play a much more dominant role in the medical world.

In five years technology will revolutionise what we do.

We've already developed a platform called Virtual Medics, which is a virtual medical website that can live stream consultant operations, allows interaction with the surgeon through instant message and chat box, and acts as a repository for coaching and training. I have now created collaborations with tech firms and we are creating virtual reality surgery which I will showcase at the wearable tech conference at London's Excel in March. This is really exciting.


Editors Comments

As a consumer-product the challenges around privacy, limited battery life and apps, how it looked, piracy concerns, and high unit cost were all well-known challenges that needed to be addressed before Google Glass could be adopted as a mainstream consumer product. 

Google don't seem to have given up on the product as the press might have us believe though. Cade Metz, from Wired recently published an article, Sorry, But Google Glass Isn't Anywhere Close to Dead where he outlines how medical, industrial and other business sectors see Google Glass as an important part of their future. The project has apparently been moved into a group overseen by Tony Fadell, former SVP of Apple's Ipod Division, and founder of NEST, who produced the Nest Thermometer, so it seems there's life in Google Glass yet.

Other big players also seem to see value in Glass augmented-reality technology. Sony just announced its releasing a developer edition of SmartEyeGlass across 10 countries in March. It seems to differ from Google Glass in a couple of ways insomuch that the former had all its tech built into the frames whereas Sony's products comes with a handheld controller, which may help contribute to a better battery life. They also seem to be working on a product calledSmartEyeGlass Attach, a clip-on version that can be attached to everyday eyewear. This customisation could be significant because the obtrusiveness of Google Glass seemed to make some people uncomfortable, wearers and observers alike; and the aesthetics of someone's eyewear is a pretty personal choice.

With other glass-type products in development, GlassUp, Laster, ORA, AIR, Toshiba Glass, it will be interesting to see where glass-wear fits into the competitive wearable tech market.

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