Given the significance and delicacy of their work, surgeons have always had access to state-of-the-art specialized medical technology in the operating room.

For many surgeons, however, the most coveted device nowadays is a consumer gadget: Google Glass.

As the first device to combine computers and smartphones with a pair of glasses, Google Glass can capture and stream live video of what the wearer sees – and it may completely change how surgeons operate.

But is it really going to help patients?

'Glass will allow surgeons to set up video consultations with other experts and get virtual assistance right then and there'- Dr. Teodor Grantcharov

One of the biggest proponents of using Glass in the operating room is Dr. Teodor Grantcharov, a minimally invasive surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

He is fascinated by the technology, which gives him the ability to wirelessly transmit live video of what he sees during surgery, communicate with others and interact with the web using only voice commands.

Imagine being able to capture footage while in the operating room, without ever having to put down your scalpel or turn away from the patient. The same video could be streamed to surgeons across the world, providing surgeons such as Grantcharov with expert advice while they operate.

I recently met with Grantcharov in his office, where he showed me how it works. Glass looks like a pair of eyeglasses, but has no lenses. A small computer screen, activated by saying “Okay, Glass” or tilting your head, is projected in front of your right eye. Glass is Wi-Fi and Bluetooth compatible and has a speaker, microphone and camera. If voice commands aren’t doing the trick, a scroll button is also available on the light, 36-gram frame.

So far, Glass has been hard to get. Google has sold them to select early “explorers” by invitation only at a hefty price tag of $1,500 US. On top of that, getting a pair to doctors in Canada is near impossible, since Google doesn’t ship them here.

Improving surgeries

Grantcharov is one of the first doctors in Canada to get his hands on Glass – and only after a year of lobbying, a promise to conduct research and help from colleagues in the U.S. But his team would like to push Glass to the next level - hoping to use it during surgery to teach and assist surgeons. 

Using Glass during surgery was inevitable. Many operating rooms already contain mountable cameras that capture video, but they require constant adjustment depending on surgeon movement – something that rarely occurs, because moving the camera is distracting and can increase infection risk.

Also, the ability to transmit live video, communicate with others virtually and surf the web – all without touching anything – isn’t possible with mounted cameras.

Glass overcomes these issues.

Virtual communication

Earlier this year, a surgeon in India used Glass to stream video of a foot and ankle operation he was performing to doctors in other countries and also to provide live updates to the family as he did so. Surgeons in the U.S. have used Glass to help view X-rays and body scans during an operation; it allows them to look at images without taking their eyes off the patient.

Grantcharov believes the potential uses go even further.

Google Glass view of office

Dr. Teodor Grantcharov took this photo of an office using Google Glass. The individual with the camera is the author of this article. (Chethan Sathya/CBC)

He plans to use Glass to allow surgeons to learn from experienced colleagues, who would be able to provide second-by-second feedback during surgery without having to physically be in the operating room.

Once they’re finished training, many surgeons operate alone and would probably feel more comfortable with occasional mentorship from veterans, Grantcharov says. In these instances, Glass can be used to provide virtual assistance during their first few cases. This also applies to doctors in remote or resource-poor areas, where specialized surgeons may not be available.

Glass will allow specialists to virtually assist other doctors in emergency situations, he says.

Getting a second opinion - instantly

Grantcharov thinks even experienced surgeons could find a use for Glass. Right now, if a surgeon encounters a rare condition or situation during a routine operation, he or she has to halt the procedure, get second opinions and then bring the patient back to the operating room on another day.

“Glass will allow surgeons to set up video consults with other experts and get virtual assistance right then and there,” he says.

According to Grantcharov, if Glass improves a surgeon’s efficiency, concentration and ability to operate, patients have the most to gain. He plans to start a formal research study of Glass in the next few months.

“We hope to determine if Glass truly makes a difference for patients undergoing surgery,” he says.

Though Glass can do the tasks Grantcharov has proposed, his team is working with engineers from Ryerson University in Toronto to develop apps that make these tasks more intuitive. In the meantime, he plans to experiment with Glass during surgery, setting up video consults and finding potential glitches.

Dr. Marlies Schijven, a surgeon at the Academic Medical Center Amsterdam, is one of the first in the world to use Glass in surgery. She says the device is extremely helpful, but it has some flaws.

Not without its flaws

Battery life is limited and an external battery is required for procedures longer than 30 minutes. A strong Wi-Fi connection in the operating room is crucial. And since the camera is positioned above the wearer’s eye, the captured image often only includes the top part of what you are looking at, Schijven says.

Eye strain from the screen and limited voice commands may also decrease usability, Grantcharov says.

There has also been concern about patient information inadvertently being stored on Google servers. Grantcharov’s team is working to ensure all information transmitted using Glass adheres to patient privacy laws.

“Surgeons must obtain consent asking patients if using Glass during their operation is okay and care must be taken not to videotape identifying information, such as faces, scars or tattoos,” he says.

These shortcomings and technical issues, along with the price, may limit Glass from going mainstream in operating rooms. Google has said it will use feedback from early explorers like Grantcharov and Schijven to refine the current beta version of Glass.

Many doctors remain skeptical of the benefits of Glass. But the few doctors who have used it see promise in its potential as a communication tool during surgery. And with speculation that the cost of the device could come down to between $300 to $500 during its wide release later this year, don’t be shocked if you see your doctor wearing Glass in the near future.