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Innovations in AR: Healthcare

We take a closer look at the extent to which augmented reality is impacting the healthcare industry

It’s fair to say that augmented reality (AR) hasn’t quite caught the public imagination in the same way virtual reality (VR) has. It’s one of those technologies that forever seems to be being hyped while simultaneously always being a few years away.

Indeed, according to one study, in 2018 the AR market was worth $4bn to VR’s $7bn. But while consumer adoption of augmented reality may be lagging some way behind, it is in industry where AR is proving to have the most impact – leading the same study to conclude that by 2030, AR will be larger than VR, reaching $76bn in comparison to VR’s $28bn.

In this series on augmented reality, we’ll be determining how likely that future is by examining the good and bad of AR technology across a number of industries, starting today with healthcare.

Surgery

One exciting area for AR in medicine is surgery. In high-stakes procedures, it’s easy to imagine the utility of technology that can guide the surgeon’s hand while still affording them a view of the situation. As such, mixed reality headsets allow surgeons to operate on patients more effectively, blending the real world with projections of computed Tomography (CT), and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of the patients in order to detect exactly where an operation should be performed. 

A prime example of this came in 2017 when the first surgical procedure using Microsoft’s HoloLens was performed by Dr. Gregory Thomas, Head of Orthopedic Surgery and Traumatology at the Hospital Avicenne AP-HP. During the procedure, the doctor was able to view holograms and 3D models of the patient projected in real-time, as well as call on the assistance of other doctors who could appear via proxy holograms.

Image credit: Assistance Publique Hôpitaux de Paris

Thomas likened the technology to having a smartphone in the operating theatre, saying: “I realized that I was able to use the HoloLens as a computer or a smartphone to get any information I need when I need it, during surgery. That allows surgeons to be quicker, to be more efficient and to improve performance.” AR’s utility for surgery is further proven by the virtue of hands-free control, with manual gestures and voice commands being used to access information that would otherwise be inaccessible to an operating surgeon in a sterile room.

Since that time, there have been numerous initiatives to make use of the technology in a surgical setting, as well as before the surgery actually takes place. Holographic representations of the area being operated on can be constructed and observed in 3D before surgery takes place, affording surgeons a much more visceral understanding of what they need to do while also allowing infinite practice attempts.

“Medicine, particularly surgery, is still an apprenticeship. You watch a person operate 100 times before you’re allowed to,” said Dr. John Sledge, an orthopaedic surgeon in Louisiana who makes use of augmented reality. “But now we can have residents run through 100 operations on the HoloLens, complete with rare complications and their solutions. We can do worst-case scenario training. With the HoloLens, we can make a problem occur and the doctor in training has to solve it.

Problems remain, however, not least the potential of issues with the cleanliness of augmented reality headsets in an operating theatre as well as the question of how they can be restored if they stop working. Other approaches to AR bypassing the use of a head-mounted display have duly been tested, including an advanced form of projection onto a patient’s body. That solution requires 3D reconstruction of a bodily region so that a flat X-ray image can be properly projected onto the skin without distortion. 

Telehealth

During the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns, telehealth has risen to the fore as a means of accessing healthcare without being somewhere physically. While this can be achieved with a simple video call, bringing AR into the mix opens up more meaningful interaction possibilities. Case in point being the Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, which brought in AR to reduce physical contact between staff, patients and visitors with virtual ward rounds. That enabled one clinician to make the rounds wearing a HoloLens 2 device with others joining in remotely via Microsoft Teams – enabling them to see what the clinician sees as well as engage in two-way audio and video communication.

The capacity for remote collaboration in augmented reality also opens up many training possibilities, allowing more experienced but not physically present doctors to witness and even holographically appear to trainees as they learn – potentially a huge boon to healthcare professionals in developing parts of the world.

Aside from educating professionals, AR has taken on a role in educating ordinary members of the public about their health, as demonstrated by the recent BBC television programme Your Body Uncovered. Away from the television cameras, the technology is being used to prepare patients for surgery by demonstrating to them exactly what the problem is and how it will be fixed via a virtual twin of their bodies.

Mental Health

One area where AR can best demonstrate its unique capabilities is in so-called “exposure therapy”, whereby a therapist attempts to help a patient overcome fears, anxieties and phobias. With AR, patients can be exposed to a virtual representation of something that scares them while knowing that they are in a safe environment and that the object of their fears isn’t real.

Image credit: Phobys

One study using an augmented reality smartphone app to reduce fear of spiders found the “intervention led to significantly lower subjective fear” over a controlled two-week trial. While virtual reality could be used for similar purposes, using AR means that a user is able to see their own body and surroundings while interacting with virtual elements, helping them to better engage in the treatment. The fact that AR can be so readily accessed from a smartphone means such exposure therapy can also be accessed as a self-help tool, not requiring the presence of a therapist.

The practice of using AR for such treatments is certainly in its infancy, but there are signs that AR is gaining ground as a method of treatment. According to GlobalData’s 2021 poll on digital health in neurology, 18% of 109 industry respondents thought AR and VR solutions would be the most suitable technology to treat mental and behavioural health conditions.

Summary

While augmented reality technology may currently be lagging behind the bigger brother that is VR, it has found a natural home in the world of medicine, where it has enjoyed a long and fruitful history. Despite that, it has very much yet to reach its full potential. As new approaches to AR continue to be developed and barriers to entry are lowered further, expect augmented reality to play an ever more prominent role in the healthcare of the future.

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