Feb 08 2021

How Smart Glasses Could Change Healthcare Delivery

As the need for on-demand diagnoses and personalized treatment evolves, augmented reality devices will join the clinician’s toolkit.

Long before the pandemic, healthcare was on the road to becoming ever more digital. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 mandated meaningful conversion of physical documents to electronic medical records (EMRs). By 2018, individual patients were generating more than 80 megabytes of EMR and imaging data each year, which is manageable in isolation but incredibly challenging at scale.

COVID-19 supercharged this shift with a sudden pivot to telemedicine and at-a-distance diagnoses. According to PWC, virtual health delivery now tops the list of 2021 issues in the healthcare industry. As a result, medical professionals need a new way to address emerging challenges, and the solution may come from an unlikely source: augmented reality smart glasses.

Unlike more familiar wearable tech such as smart watches and fitness trackers, smart glasses haven’t cracked the mainstream market. While early attempts to market smart glasses promised a revolutionary AR experience, in practice they were panned by users and observers alike.

According to Dustin Brewer, principal futurist for ISACA, however, this initial failure didn’t mean the death of AR glasses, just a change in direction. “They’re now used in a lot of different industries,” says Brewer, “and you’re starting to see a push into the medical field.”

Here, the advantage is specificity: Unlike earlier iterations that delivered essentially useless data to consumers at large, smart glasses in healthcare could supply specific, patient-related information on demand to help health professionals make immediate diagnostic decisions.

How Can Smart Glasses Improve Healthcare?

For Brewer, both augmented and virtual reality (VR) offer significant benefits for training, especially at a distance. “Since the pandemic, it’s the next step in the virtual classroom,” he says, together with extended reality (XR), which includes tactile or other sensory outputs to improve healthcare training.

“Smart glasses are also being used to improve diagnostics,” says Brewer. “You can have a colleague or another practitioner thousands of miles away assist with diagnoses or use glasses as the vehicle for delivery of diagnostic data from an artificial intelligence consultant.”

For telemedicine applications, Brewer points to the increasing use of AR glasses to bring up electronic medical records on demand. He also highlights the potential role of wearables that patients could use to collect and provide key health data.

How Are Smart Glasses Helping with COVID-19?

No discussion of current operations is complete without mention of COVID-19, and wearable technology in healthcare is no exception.

Brewer makes it clear: “Wearable technologies are the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic.” For patients, this has taken the form of devices capable of monitoring oxygen levels or heartbeat irregularities to reduce the risk of serious outcomes.

For doctors, AR glasses “offer the ability to do diagnostics remotely, meaning you don’t need to have a group of people in the room and you can reduce the exposure of medical personnel to someone who might be infected,” Brewer says.

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: See how remote surgery might revolutionize healthcare.

How Does Wearable Technology Affect Healthcare?

For healthcare professionals, wearable technology offers benefits across key operational areas.

  • Hands-free documentation: Using smart glasses, clinicians can easily capture and store key patient data without the need for manual data entry.
  • Telemedicine: Assessment and prescription at a distance means reduced wait times for patients and lowered risk for healthcare providers.
  • EMR management: Automatic data recording means less time spent converting physical files to EMR-compliant formats.
  • Rapid diagnostics: Access to second opinions — from human colleagues or AI algorithms — can significantly improve diagnostic accuracy and speed.
  • Education and training: AR glasses can facilitate in-depth training even when it’s not possible for staff to attend in person.
  • Live broadcasting: Connected AR devices allow healthcare professionals to livestream and record key medical procedures for later training or assessment. Tools such as Vuzix smart glasses have already been used in situ to assist with surgeries such as knee replacement.

How Can AR and VR Tools Gain Acceptance?

Even the best health technology in the world won’t make a difference if no one wants to use it.

For Brewer, acceptance of AR in healthcare starts with form factor: “What does it look like? How does it fit? Is it comfortable to wear for a 12-hour shift?”

He points to some of the current challenges with mask-wearing in the medical profession: If healthcare personnel aren’t comfortable wearing AR devices, they won’t gain traction.

“Ease of use is also critical,” says Brewer. “Some glasses are hard to interact with. Some use a ring worn on the finger to interact with device features, while others use voice recognition AI — and we’re not quite there yet with either.”

Rapid improvements in both physical chipset sizes and AI-driven interaction bode well for the health wearables market.

RELATED: See how mobile devices are addressing new healthcare challenges. 

How Do IT Leaders Integrate Smart Glasses?

Smart glasses exist as part of the larger Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem. As a result, they must be safely and effectively integrated with existing IT infrastructure to deliver benefits at scale. But what does this mean for IT leaders?

“Cybersecurity is huge,” notes Brewer. “You’ve got these devices that have recording capabilities of audio and video, and they have access to private medical data governed by HIPAA. You need a way to store and transmit that data that’s both secure and privatized.”

There’s also a need for more robust IT strategies that encompass multiple tools and environments. According to Brewer, while wearable devices “must be able to record audio, video and other digital data, these data sets are likely stored in the cloud and then connected to other systems that are also emerging technologies, including other IoT devices. As a result, it’s not just about implementing one device.”

Primed by legislative mandates and pushed by pandemic pressures, the healthcare industry is undergoing fundamental change. Brewer puts it simply: “We’ve never had the ability to collect so much data about a health event before.”

Strategic adoption and integration of AR smart glasses may offer a way to extend the value of these data assets and bring a new approach to professional training, patient diagnosis and telemedicine frameworks.

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