MENLO PARK, Calif. — When I arrived for my annual physical at the office of doctor Darren Phelan this summer, he had a pair of titanium, WiFi-connected glasses pushed up on his forehead. He was about to examine me while streaming video of our encounter to a scribe some 8,000 miles away in India, one of more than 500 doctors nationwide to have turned Google Glass into a health technology.
After I changed into a medical gown, Phelan placed the headset over his eyes and turned it on. First, he greeted his Bangalore-based scribe, Sharanjeet. “Hi Sharon, how are you?” he asked, talking to the air while looking up quizzically into the right corner of his eye. A few seconds later a text bubble appeared.
“Okay, good!” Phelan said.
He started into the exam. We made chitchat about my health, checking up on a concussion from last year, jaw pain, supplements. Phelan was calm and natural, with the air of a family doctor.
But I felt decidedly weird. I was keenly aware that a third person, whom I hadn’t met and never would, was watching a live-stream of my visit — literally witnessing some of the most intimate things about my life. What if she saw my private parts?
When Ian Shakil, the chief executive of Augmedix, the company distributing Google Glass for use by doctors, first told me that he wanted the device to become as familiar as a stethoscope, I was incredulous. The idea smacked of Silicon Valley hubris. But after having my own visit, I now think Shakil may have a point.
It was remarkable how quickly I got used to it. By the end of the exam, I’d almost forgotten that it was there.
If you came across someone wearing an always-recording headset on the subway, or some other public place, you’d probably think it was ridiculous and invasive. You might tell them off.
But when your doctor does the very same thing, it feels somehow acceptable. For better or worse, the authority of the doctor, and the innate trust we place in them, can have a way of legitimizing things that might otherwise be uncomfortable.
When you put a technology into a new context, I realized, it can take on an entirely different meaning. In the doctor’s office, it was no longer the same Google Glass that technology journalists like me had scoffed at. It had been dismissed as another Google whim, a solution in search of a problem — and a privacy conundrum in its own right. Even in a society that is always recording, Glass seemed to cross the line.
Here, though, it began to make more sense. I listened to Phelan explain how using the technology gave him time back. The $2,000 a month he paid, he said, was well worth it, because he got an extra 1.5 hours in his day to leave work at a reasonable hour and see his family. His lower stress level enabled him to provide his patients with better care.
“It was the weirdest thing that just became normal,” he said, noting that only two patients — both lawyers — had refused to allow its use.
As the session went on, I was amused by the rapport between Phelan and Sharanjeet. They’d been working together for months but had never met in person.
“It’s a little like a texting relationship,” he said.
I wondered, would such virtual interactions feel perfectly normal in the future?
But no matter how relaxed I got, I couldn’t bear to do the Pap smear in Sharanjeet’s presence.