Augmented reality in healthcare
Augmented reality (AR) integrates digital information with the user's environment in real-time.
For many, the first time augmented reality appeared on their radar was either,
- When the world berated Google Glass for being an expensive, unattractive geek toy that social users never really wanted or needed, and
- When the world went crazy searching for and catching Nintendo's 'pocket monsters' playing Pokémon Go.
Both projected digital information and images onto real-world imagery using different viewing hardware. So how does that work when it comes to healthcare?
AR, VR, and MR – what’s the difference?
These three technologies often get confused, but they’re pretty straightforward to differentiate:
Virtual reality (VR) – You’re contained—usually by wearing an enclosed headset—in a completely virtual digital world.
Augmented reality (AR) – You view the real world, in real-time, through hi-tech eyewear, a headset, a tablet, or a mobile, with an overlay of digital imagery and information mixed with what’s going on right in front of you.
Mixed or merged reality (MR) – Just like AR, you see digital imagery and information combined with the real world through your viewer. However, with mixed/merged reality, they’re intertwined so that you can manipulate both via tools and sensors working with your physical actions.
AR in healthcare is already a big business
Although considered at the beginning of its journey, AR in healthcare has been making waves for quite some time.
In 2020, Johns Hopkins neurosurgeons landmarked their first AR surgery, placing screws in a patient’s spine, and only a few days later, removed a cancerous tumor from the spine of another.
“When using augmented reality in the operating room, it’s like having a GPS navigator in front of your eyes in a natural way, so you don’t have to look at a separate screen to see your patient’s CT scan.” Timothy Witham, MD, the leading surgeon, and director of Johns Hopkins Neurosurgery Spinal Fusion Laboratory.
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The future of augmented reality in healthcare
Undoubtedly, technology has drastically changed everything about how we live, so obviously, it will have a significant impact on our healthcare systems.
However, as with anything that covers such delicate and sensitive practices to people, their health, and in the modern world, their data management, it could be a careful journey with a slow and steady climb. That said, with the rate of advancement in technology and with so much money to be made from the healthcare industry, AR will be mainstream in every aspect of healthcare sooner than you think.
One of the latest valuations (GlobalData.com) put the market value of AR in healthcare at 7 billion US dollars in 2020, projecting a 35% growth over the 2020–2030 period. This figure is higher than earlier projections anticipated, showing just how much movement AR is creating within the industry.
Augmented reality in the clinic
AR is becoming an increasingly popular hands-on tool for patient care and diagnosis. With access to real-time data and vast libraries of information, doctors have a new tool that helps them determine the cause of symptoms faster and more accurately.
Also, with apps and AR practices that help patients explain issues in greater detail to their doctors—consider an app replicating vision or hearing issues—the level and seriousness of those problems are far easier to estimate.
One of the most popular AR tools in the clinic, AccuVein, has been used on more than 10 million patients (to date). With the likelihood of finding a vein on the first attempt being three and a half times more likely, that’s a lot of patient comfort and nurse confidence delivered via a single simple piece of tech.
- Acuevein.com – Using AR via a handheld scanner projects where veins lie in a patient’s body for both doctors and nurses.
- Orca Health – EyeDecide was an early diagnosis tool for vision issues. Since then, the company has moved into several different lines in the Google Play store, catering to health education for various topics and patients.
- SentiAR.com – Providing holographic technology via AR, so physicians have a 360° real-time, interactive view of the treatment they’re delivering.
- Atheerair.com – Smartglasses and hand tracking remote assistance.
- Microsoft Hololens – Delivered the first-person perspective of hospital rounds when Covid prevented residents from being there in person. Using Remote Assist and Microsoft Teams video calling, colleagues all over the globe had real-time access to the patient, notes, x-rays, and more.
Augmented reality in the operating theatre
Surgeons use AR and VR to visualize organs, bones, and other systems in greater detail and practice complicated procedures. However, the truth around AR is that it’s already being used to map out such layouts during surgery, delivering greater accuracy for the surgeon wielding the scalpel.
Projecting MRI data and CT scans directly to the body through the AR headset offers invaluable assistance for surgeons and their teams, as we learned through the neurosurgery/spinal surgery examples at John Hopkins discussed earlier on the page.
- Echopixeltech.com – 3D modeling using CT images via AR delivering patient-specific anatomy.
- Proximie.com – A virtual assistance tool, projecting remote surgeon’s hands onto those of the lead surgeon.
- Medtronic worked alongside Surgical Theater to provide an AR platform during a complex cranial procedure.
Augmented reality in healthcare training and education
It’s easy to imagine how medical students will utilize the latest tech to practice surgeries, procedures, dissections, and more. In such a sensitive field, any additional practice could mean the difference between life and death, so those benefits are plainly apparent.
However, AR is also a fabulous tool for showing how new medical technologies will work on the human body or how medications work on real people. Overlaying anatomy operations and internal applications helps students and patients visualize precisely what’s going on inside.
- Bioflightvr.com – AR/VR training with 360° videos for doctors and students.
- Immersivetouch.com – Training and education using VR/AR, including next-generation surgical simulators and learning management.
- Touchsurgery.com – Surgical practice simulations based on leading techniques and procedures.
- Innovations in drug use – Many pharma companies are utilizing AR to show how new (and existing) drugs work on your body. Information presented this way is far easier to consume and understand than reading even more material that can be tough to digest for many already overworked brains.
- Microsoft Hololens – Hololens is proving to be a big player in healthcare AR. A leading tool is its HoloAnatomy app, which uncovers everything from muscles to veins via a dynamic holographic model.
- AR simulation in nursing education – The University of Derby took AR learning to a new level with a physical simulation suite backed with completely immersive simulation suites to enhance learning opportunities.
- ARnatomy – Technology using character recognition of textbook information and illustrations to overlay digital information onto human body structures.
Augmented reality in dental care
There are AR tools available to guide dentists through complex treatments, procedures, and surgeries, just as there are in mainstream surgery. Also, dental care is another case where AR is used for advanced education and practices for both seasoned dentists and students alike.
For example, AR can provide a 360° view of a root canal, previously only possible with multiple mirrors in the mouth or an x-ray.
An unusual aspect of AR use in dentistry is coordinated repair work to equipment in emergency situations. Equipment issues mid-surgery are potentially dangerous for patients, so a speedy fix, rectifying problematic failures, can be a game-changer.
- Dynamic navigation via AR – Computer aided/guided procedures.
- Visualizing the results of dental plans and surgeries via AR.
Augmented reality in everyday healthcare
The benefits of augmented reality in healthcare aren’t limited to hospitals and clinics. For example, AR is one of the leading tools for remote diagnosis, as already discussed.
You'll find countless uses already in action if you search AR healthcare in your chosen app store. They include many onboarding and instruction manuals for new technologies and healthcare equipment, tutorials, guides, and health-learning aids, as well as monitoring tech for many ongoing health issues.
One well-documented trial used Google Glass to help mothers show first-hand the problems they encountered while breastfeeding. This remote solution provided far more insight for doctors and counselors than a phone call ever could.
- AED4EU app – AR browser showing the real-life locations of external defibrillators.
- Curiscope Virtuali-tee – A wearable that works with a mobile or tablet to bring human anatomy to life for kids.
The next steps for AR in healthcare
You’ll now understand that the possibilities of where the latest technologies will take the healthcare industry are almost boundless. AR is only one small part, yet every aspect will receive innovative 'smart' hi-tech upgrades and advancements sooner than imagined.
- 3D printing
- Electronic disease registries
- IT applications
- Wearable sensors and monitoring tools
- Clinic administration
- Medical record systems
- Telehealth and telemedicine
- Patient management
As blockchain and AI are predicted to improve how we manage our digital information and accelerate its sharing and application, we should see a vast improvement in health management, practical solutions, and patient care across the board.
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