LEBANON — As Dr. Brion Benninger slowly moves a linear finger-tip ultrasound probe over research assistant David Horn’s wrist, he can literally see an artery pulsing with blood beneath the skin, thanks to the Google Glass eye set he’s wearing.
And Horn is viewing the same image on a nearby ultrasound screen.
Although it’s a daily event at the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific — Northwest, to a newcomer, it’s like something out of a Star Trek movie.
It’s what Benninger — the college’s head of anatomy — has been researching for the last few months, trying to answer the question, “What if?”
The research is an outgrowth of nearly three years work Benninger and his students at COMP-Northwest have been doing, using the Sonivate finger-tip ultrasound equipment.
It was an “aha moment” when Benninger saw his first pair of Google Glass — a mobile computer system worn like a pair of eyeglasses — he immediately knew there was the potential to “see” into a person’s body without an expensive x-ray machine. The U.S. military has been working with Optical Head Manipulated Display systems for about 10 years, Benninger said, but Google Glass is the first consumer-type system, he said.
And best of all, Benninger says, the process allows the healthcare provider the opportunity to maintain physical contact with the patient. It’s the importance of the human touch that is taught at COMP-Northwest from the first day each student steps onto campus.
“The human touch cannot be measured, but it is notably missed,” Benninger said during a recent program before the Lebanon Optimist Club. “We want our physicians to touch us.”
But even using the smallest ultrasound probe, Benninger said doctors have to look away from their patient, and when they turn their head, they often stop touching the person or move the probe away from their target point.
With Google Glass, Benninger maintains both eye and physical contact.
“I can watch his face and see if there is a grimace when I move his arm,” Benninger said, gently twisting Horn’s hand and arm. “That says a lot, but if my head is turned toward a computer screen, I would miss that information.”
Maintaining physical contact is also important because the doctor can “feel the person’s temperature, his sweat. I can feel if that is a muscle spasm.”
Benninger said the Lebanon students are the only ones in the world that he knows of who are combining Google Glass with linear finger probes.
“I am the first person to do this, but it’s going to catch fire,” Benninger predicted, adding that some hospitals and physicians are using Google Glass as their on-site computer system. They can be used in surgery to show pre-loaded photos of a person’s anatomy, or in a clinic, to show individual patient records.
Students can also use the equipment to pinpoint where to insert a needle into a vein, Benninger said. They use a special mannequin to practice, before moving on to humans.
Benninger said that although ultrasound equipment is usually used to scan soft tissues, it can also “highlight bones nicely, so we can check if there is a break.”
Benninger sees a time when a group of surgeons can communicate and share information in the same surgical suite, or elsewhere throughout a hospital setting.
“Perhaps a surgeon would like another doctor to come in to assist,” Benninger said. “He could contact him without having to take off his gloves, which takes time.”
Benninger said his research has shown a marked improvement in stabilizing the signal from the finger probe to the glasses, which operate with both physical or oral commands. Live streaming remains a bit unsteady, Benninger said, but that can be improved with time and improved Internet connections.
Benninger has successfully recorded a mock patient examination using Google Glass, and then transmitted it to other locations.
And, Benninger said, the real potential is that what the doctor is seeing in real time can be shared with any number of students either in the same building, or around the world.
“It’s a first-person view, not a second-person view,” Benninger said. “If you photograph me working with a patient, the photographer has to move to the left or right to get the picture. With Google Glass, you will see exactly what I’m seeing and at the same angle.”
Benninger said it doesn’t take much practice to get used to the depth perception needed to view the Google Glass screen and the patient at the same time.
In addition to being a valuable clinical tool, Benninger says the process has huge potential in military applications, where a medic could use the finger probe and Google Glass to determine the level of trauma facing an injured person.
Or, in third-world countries, this would be an inexpensive alternative to x-ray machines that require extensive training to operate and are expensive to maintain under challenging conditions.
From his perspective as a professor, the process will become invaluable in the teaching of anatomy, Benninger said.
His goal is to obtain a Google Glass for every anatomy student, about 108 per school year. He said they cost about $1,500 per pair. The finger probe costs about $5,000 and the Fukuda Denshi ultrasound machine costs from $30,000 to $50,000.