How is Augmented Reality Used in Medicine?

Technological advancements of the past few decades have significantly changed the healthcare industry. Technologies like Computerized Axial Tomography allow doctors to peer deep into the human body,doctors and patients in remote areas can communicate using telehealth, and other technologies help chronic patients and their care providers to monitor vital signs and treatment processes as outpatients. All those advances in healthcare delivery and medical practices change the world we live in while changing the way patients are diagnosed and treated. They also improve the way healthcare professionals are trained and educated.


Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), as well as artificial intelligence (AI), are among these technological advancements that are changing healthcare today. The 2017 global healthcare sector outlook by Deloitte names the top ten technology innovations that will deliver more value while reducing costs in healthcare. They are next-generation sequencing, 3D-printed devices, immunotherapy, AI, point-of-care diagnostics, VR, social media, biosensors and trackers, convenient care, and telehealth.


According to EdTechReview, the latest forecasts show that augmented reality is revolutionizing numerous sectors of the economy, including augmented reality in healthcare and education. It is expected that the AR device market will reach $659.98 million by 2018. The estimates for the VR device market growth in 2018 are around $407 million.



AR and VR – What’s the Difference?


These two technologies are often mixed up, and we’ll explain the differences between the two. In short, augmented reality is the use of computer technology to create and integrate artificial objects in a real environment. For example, AR is based on the existing environment and projects digital information onto it while letting users still see the real world. Virtual reality is the use of computer technology to create a completely simulated environment with nothing left from the real world.


The typical picture we imagine when thinking about virtual reality is someone in a headset and headphones moving their head and arms to interact with the virtual world. The best known examples of VR are Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, and HTC Vive.


Augmented reality usually uses glasses or a pass-through camera to let the user see the real world around in real time. Artificial elements are then projected onto the glass or shown on the screen on top of the camera feed. Widely known examples of AR technology are Google Glass and Pokémon Go.


According to CapTech, the main differences between two technologies lie in the fields of hardware, social interaction and access. When compared, VR hardware that is bigger and less convenient than a smartphone or iPad is needed for AR apps. AR is also more attractive in terms of social interaction, as it allows communication with other people while VR applications are usually closed off to the rest of the real world. In terms of access, AR is less expensive and much easier.


The popularity of the technology means that it can be a very promising digital technology for the healthcare industry. Let’s review some examples of using AR in healthcare and find the benefits it can provide for healthcare professionals and their patients.



AR in Medical Industry – What Is Already in Use in the Industry?


Let’s discuss some of the most useful examples of AR and VR in healthcare as both of these technologies can play a key role in the future of medicine, though their functions may be different. We can consider AR as a natural consequence of technological developments and the availability of data that has flooded doctors recently. AR can help doctors access the latest and most relevant information about their patients. Moreover, patients can also use AR for self-education and improving the quality of treatment they receive. VR, with its ability to create 3D simulations, can be very useful both for medical practitioners and students.


One of the examples of augmented reality in medicine that is beneficial for patients is NuEyes, a pair of hands-free, electronic smart glasses for the visually impaired. NuEyes smart glasses are built on the ODG R-7 platform, and allow people with low vision to see the things around them and perform everyday tasks. They are a lightweight, wireless, headworn device which can be operated either with a wireless controller or by using simple voice commands. According to Forbes, NuEyes cooperates with a US major national insurance carrier, making these smart glasses more affordable for the visually impaired, as the insurer covers up to 50 percent of the cost of the product.


Another AR-based product aimed at patients is Brain Power, the software developed by the Massachusetts based startup, which transforms wearables, in particular, Google Glass, into neuro-assistive artificial-intelligence systems to aid people with brain-related challenges, especially autism. The software helps children and adults develop their social skills, language skills, and social behaviours.


Medical practitioners and nurses also can benefit from AR technology and there are AR-based products that are already used in healthcare. One of these products is AccuVein, which makes vein visualization a new standard of care. Many people are afraid of blood tests and intravenous injections because they are afraid the nurse won’t be able to find a vein the first time and extending the procedure and making it more painful. AccuVein is a projector device that uses AR technology to display a map of the veins on the surface of the skin in real time. According to information from the manufacturer, hospitals and healthcare providers using these devices see a 39% reduction in pain, a substantial improvement of the injection procedure (first attempt success rate is 3.5 times higher), and a $352,498 annual savings.


Augmented reality in surgery is also a proven application of this technology. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, augmentation of reality has been used in surgery for many years. This technology is especially valuable in neurosurgery, where the combination of radiographic scan data from stored or real time acquisition is used to allow more accurate and safe “neuronavigation”.


An example of AR in surgery is the use of Microsoft HoloLens as an assistant for spinal surgery. The Holographic Navigation Platform, developed by Scopis, is used during a surgical procedure. This Holographic Navigation Platform brings AR and mixed reality in the operating room. Using the HoloLens, it projects a mixed-reality overlay (the surgery plan details) on the patient. The developers say that this software can “show you complicated tumor boundaries, assist with implant placements and guide you along anatomical pathways”. When it comes to spinal surgery in particular, surgeons can use this platform to track pedicle screws inserted in the patient’s body and to adjust virtual displays using gestures to be able to see important numbers in their field-of-view.


We can see that AR can be used both by doctors and patients with the help of specialized devices and simple smartphones or tablets. This technology allows valuable data to be included in treatment procedures and improves patient engagement in care delivery. There are some distinct benefits this technology can bring to the table now and in the future.



How Medical Augmented Reality Can Benefit Patients?


First of all, AR can significantly improve the quality of care. Using smart glassses and similar devices, surgeons can monitor vitals and important relevant information (for example, provided by endoscopic cameras or scanners) while performing surgery, reducing the risks of the operation.


AR is a very useful tool for patient education, both for treatment and disease prevention. Various educational apps provide valuable information concerning a particular illness and treatment for patients and their family members. It is generally believed that human brain evolution involved development, learning and operation in multisensory environments, that is why it is considered that multi-sensory experiences, including AR, can be more effective in transmitting and processing information.


AR apps using smart glasses can be valuable digital healthcare assistants for outpatient care. These apps can remind patients about taking medicines or contacting doctors when specific symptoms occur.



How Augmented Reality Can Benefit Doctors and Care ?


Augmented reality can be beneficial for healthcare professionals in two ways – in the aspect of education and training, and in the aspect of diagnostics and treatment providing access to real-time patient data.


Medical students have always dealt with huge amounts of theory behind surgical procedures, human anatomy, and treatment protocols. And now augmented reality technology allows them to visualize the knowledge they obtain. For example, AR apps can be used to overlay anatomy data on a 3D human skeleton giving them a better understanding of how the human body works.


AR is successfully used for diagnostics and treatment. This technology is especially beneficial for minimally invasive surgeries and more complex procedures. Quick access to real-time patient data can save lives as surgeons use smart glasses, which visualize this data, do not have to shift the attention to additional devices in the operating room.


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