Digital technology is changing how physicians work with patients, with augmented reality (AR) in place at some healthcare organizations such as the Sutter Health Network.

Three years ago, Dr. Albert Chan, chief of the digital patient experience at Sutter Health, decided to partner with Augmedix to provide Google Glass for patient visits. Now, more than 100 physicians at Sutter Health use Google Glass with their patients because of the benefits of augmented reality.

In the past three years, more than 175,000 patient visits have taken place with a Sutter Health physician wearing Google Glass. The way it works, the physician wears AR glasses when they see a patient. The entire visit is streamed in real-time with a scribe at a remote location who is taking notes and viewing the interaction.

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“My scribe is named Raoul. He is typing the notes into our electronic health care [system] and viewing the interaction. He might ask some clarifying questions,” Chan explained. The scribe acts as a virtual assistant, watching and listening to the patient visit.

When he first started using the service, the scribe helped Chan with a patient, and that helped Chan realize how invaluable the service would be. A patient had come in and said they had pain in their back, a little shoulder pain, and some chest pain.

“It’s a typical story in the life of a busy doctor, and when you hear chest pain, you go there first. I was concerned about my patient’s chest pain, and worried about heart disease for obvious reasons. Then, I’m examining the patient, listening to their heart, and my scribe types to me, in the visual display in Google Glass, and says, ‘Hey, Dr. Chan, the patient mentioned their shoulder and you didn’t check it.’ So I quickly said to the patient, ‘oh, yeah, I know we’re worried about your chest pain, but let me check your shoulder pain, too.’ I love technology that makes me look smarter.”

In addition to helping doctors look smarter, the use of Google Glass has improved efficiency. It’s a vast time-saver, with physicians eliminating up to two hours of writing down their notes at the end of the day. It allows for more accuracy, because the notes are taken in real time, rather than the physician trying to remember the visit later. Plus, it allows the physician to pay more attention to the patient during the visit.

“It’s really been a great experience thus far. I use it with all my patients. 97% accept it,” Chan said. “Over the years, when I think about innovation, I think to myself, ‘how are patients going to react?’ They always surprise me. They’re always more advanced than I would have been, frankly. They’ve been really welcoming. Once my patients understand the benefits to them and to us, they really don’t have any concerns.”

“There is this power of being hands free and allowing yourself to focus. When I think of all the distractions in my day, it’s nice to be able to focus on my patients. That’s what’s been truly remarkable,” Chan said.

When Google Glass was taken off the consumer market, it didn’t impact Sutter Health. “We sort of went into stealth mode. We never had an interruption with Google Glass when it was taken off the consumer market. The Google team really realized there was a greater focus on industrial purposes as you will and they continued to support us in the three years we’ve been on the service.”

And saving up to two hours a day per physician is huge for an organization as large as Sutter Health. It operates 24 hospitals in northern California and Hawaii, with more than 5,000 physicians and 55,000 employees, treating more than 3 million patients every year, Chan said.

Google Glass helps eliminate clinician burnout by giving physicians more free time. “This concept of clinician burnout. It’s an element of this that we really do like to talk about,” Chan said. “There’s a pretty significant rate of clinician burnout in the United States. Anywhere between 10-60% of physicians, depending on specialty, rate themselves as burned out on one or more survey instruments. In some specialities, over 60% are burned out.”

“This has been part of this story for us. The ability to provide additional health services to our clinicians and intrinsically take care of people. Our clinicians can be more present with their patients. It goes beyond just the scribe service. We’re helping patients be able to capture their stories more accurately and at the same time help clinicians out,” Chan said.

This is exactly what Ian Shakil, CEO and co-founder of Augmedix, had hoped would happen after he received his MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2012. A friend who worked at Google allowed him to try on Google Glass before it was released to the public. He was instantly inspired, and dropped everything to start a company that took advantage of the new technology.

“We wanted to do something big and bold in the world of healthcare and innovation and we didn’t know what,” he said. “I quit my job to found Augmedix, and soon after that Pelu [Tran] dropped out of medical school to join me, and we formally founded the company in 2012 and started growing it from there.”

Once the duo knew that Google Glass was a possibility, with an upcoming release date, they began thinking of ways that physicians could use AR. They created a prototype of Google Glass on a 3D printer before they owned any rights to Google Glass, and had physicians wear the prototype during their workday. “We did it to gain doctor acceptance and gain data and testing. We would install human local scribes on site in the same building, simulating Glass and Augmedix,” he said.

The company is currently valued at more than $100 million and nearly 1,000 physicians wear Google Glass through a partnership with Augmedix, Shakil said. Scribes are currently located in India, Sri Lanka, and the Dominican Republic, as well as in the US.

“This will rehumanize doctor patient interaction. We still think this is just the beginning. We view medicine as a high-tech platform,” Shakil said.

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