Augmented and Virtual Reality in Medicine

New tech enhancing medicine

The healthcare industry has enthusiastically adopted innovative technology, ranging from robotic pill dispensers to AI systems that organise medical data. Automated records, IoT, 3D printing and medicalised smartphones have all been explored as new technological avenues for use in the industry, giving patients more power over their own medical information, streamlining administrative processes and finding ways to overcome traditional problems. As a billion-dollar industry, global healthcare is well placed to invest in innovation that could have a massive impact on professionals and patients within the sector. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), now household names, have attracted the interest of medical institutions and companies for years. Both AR and VR may have sprung from the gaming industry, but both can be applied to various industries in so many different ways. How are Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality used in medicine specifically, and how have they disrupted healthcare?

VR has obvious benefits for medicine, such as highly realistic training. Through VR, the wearer can get as close to performing real operations as possible, learning how to successfully carry out procedures. In a virtual environment, the user can afford to make mistakes – when you’re dealing with human lives, this is an invaluable tool. Even though VR allows for mistakes, the immersive quality of the display still delivers a very convincing experience. It’s not all about training though. VR has been used to make a real difference within surgery, even saving lives. It doesn’t need to be a high-end headset, either – using Google Cardboard and an app called Sketchfab, doctors at Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital mapped a baby’s heart in VR, studying a 360-degree image to plan effective surgery. Whilst AR might not seem like obvious choices for medical environments, it’s helped medical professionals and patients for years through apps such as AccuVein, which helps staff to locate veins with more efficiency. Despite being discontinued, Google Glass still plays a key role too. Viipar, an app designed especially for surgeons wearing Google Glass, is essentially a video support platform for use within operations. Through Viipar, an experienced surgeon in a different location can show the wearer how to complete surgery via augmented hands which are projected onto the patient. There are also apps like Anatomy 4D, which can be bought on Apple’s iTunes. The app is marketed as an educational tool for anyone who wants to learn about the human body in interactive 4D, making detailed, quality info publicly accessible.

How have AR and VR disrupted healthcare?
AR and VR have changed healthcare by improving the accessibility of medical information for both professionals and patients, bringing greater visibility to complicated operations and giving the general public more knowledge about their own health. AR and VR are especially useful for trainees who don’t have the same level of experience as established doctors and nurses. Apps like Viipar have revolutionised the way that the sector approaches training, integrating programmes with traditional learning structures. AR/VR training applications won’t replace medical teachers, because students will still be expected to carry out procedures on human patients. For this, they will need human guidance. However, trainees will receive far more virtual direction before they attempt real life operations or treatments, because it puts them in a more knowledgeable position. This, along with apps like AccuVein, is positively impacting patient experience by generally providing a better level of service. In future, patients will have more control over their own medical data through wearables and apps. Check out this medicalised smartphone of the not-so-distant future, which combines a number of health-related apps to create a constantly accessible, personal ‘pocket doctor’. Users will be able to access a doctor at any point. The use of ‘virtual doctors’ won’t threaten the profession itself, rather it will disrupt the traditional process of making an appointment and then waiting to, well, sit in a waiting room. Practitioners will still see their patients, but not in their physical offices – which will free up a lot of space within surgeries and hospitals.

From a business perspective, the adoption of AR and VR in medicine has opened up serious opportunities for AR/VR startups looking to get their foot in the door. The financial support of the healthcare industry is clearly beneficial for the adoption of AR and VR. Successful companies and concepts can expect to see venture capitalist funding, as applying quality technology to the sector that keeps humanity healthy is obviously quite advantageous for human investors. Potential partners include national bodies like the NHS, which would be any healthtech company’s dream. For established healthcare suppliers, the use of tech in the industry presents the reoccurring Innovator’s Dilemma. . . do they integrate AR and VR into their business models, or not?

AR and VR are disrupting so many different industries but the healthcare sector stands out as an early adopter where there is still serious potential for further applications. Imagine students and trainees taking a VR tour of the human body, or a surgeon overlaying AR content to perform highly accurate operations. Through AR apps and VR experiences, technology has improved the administrative organisation of medical institutions, making a wealth of information visible for professionals and non-professionals alike. In future, VR demos could be used to ease experienced and novice doctors alike into performing treatments or surgery, whilst AR overlays could guide the actual process to avoid complications. Outside of the hospital, outpatients and members of the general public can use Augmented and Virtual Reality as an educational tool, helping them to understand their own health and accessing virtual assistance when they need it. The continued adoption of AR/VR within healthcare will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the sector, especially as competitive startups champion innovation.

Does your company use AR/VR for healthcare applications? How else could AR and VR be used to disrupt medicine? Which of the two technologies has had, or will have, the most impact in the industry? Share you thought and experiences.