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Could Google Glass Revitalize the Stethoscope?

Wearable technology has its roots in the humble analog watch. This device—hailing from 15th century Europe—allowed business people to more easily keep appointments in a world where time was typically kept with imprecise sundials. The concept of carrying data on the body was nevertheless a powerful one, and today, several major technology companies are racing to develop wearable smart technology. Some experts think that this technology will become as crucial to the day-to-day activities of a medical practitioner as that diagnostic standby, the stethoscope.

The concept of ubiquitous computing—the idea that computer technology will eventually be integrated into virtually every real-world surface—has its roots in science fiction. Still, as computing technology becomes smaller and less expensive, the potential effect that this technological revolution could have on the medical field is staggering.

Google Glass is an example of advanced wearable technology. The device contains an optical head-mounted display that is capable of shooting high-definition video, and it allows users to access information in a hands-free manner. Glass understands human speech and has continuous access to the Internet.

Dr. Raphael Grossman of the Eastern Maine Medical Center, is an early adapter of the technology. Dr. Grossman has stated that despite its $1,500 price tag, Google Glass will become as prevalent in the emergency room as staples such as the stethoscope, cardiac monitor and suture tray. In fact, Grossman was the first physician to wear the device in the emergency room while operating on patients. Indeed, Google Glass provides doctors like Grossman with a huge advantage in that they can access their patient’s medical records using precise voice commands.

Electronic Medical Records

Google Glass, like Google’s Android platform, is capable of hosting any number of apps. Doctors of the future will use custom apps that allow them to access their patients’ electronic medical records. These files are digital versions of the standard paper charts that a practice builds on their patients over time. They contain general information in their basic form, but the more comprehensive version, the electronic health record, contains a detailed medical history.

These files are extremely useful because they allow medical practitioners to track a patient’s data over time, identify patients who are overdue for scheduled checkups and screenings, and analyze a particular patient’s health against the population as a whole. As Dr. Grossman points out, Google Glass could access a patient’s medical records while they’re on the operating table and warn the doctor if the patient is allergic to a particular medication or anesthetic.

Stethoscope Interfaces

The traditional stethoscope, as popular as it is, is nevertheless threatened by a slew of smart devices. The StethIO, for instance, is a 3D-printed iPhone case that contains a plastic diaphragm and a series of hollow tubes. This iPhone case channels sounds to the smartphone’s microphone, where an on-board app analyzes heart sounds. Additionally, ultrasound technology is becoming more sensitive all the time, and it may soon provide doctors with a hand-held 3D imaging tool.

While it’s difficult for the stethoscope to compete with these innovations, Google Glass and devices like it may expand its life considerably. Stethoscopes are relatively inexpensive, and they can be made to communicate with Google Glass via the addition of a simple Bluetooth interface. Daniel Hashimoto, general surgery resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, is quick to point out that the pairing of Google Glass with the traditional stethoscope could create a remote teaching environment in which instructors could teach dozens or even hundreds of students at once how to use the device. Ideas such as these go to show that analog stethoscope technology can be paired to digital devices to create novel tools that will see use for decades to come.

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