Augmented reality (AR) has quickly made inroads in healthcare. In 2020, doctors performed the first-ever spine surgery using an AR, head-mounted display. A 78-year-old patient was suffering degenerative spine disease that required lumbar decompression and the insertion of several screws. Surgeons wore the FDA-approved AR headset to visualize the patient’s CT scan as they operated and placed the implants with 100% accuracy.
Since then, neurosurgeons have used AR for hundreds of surgeries. It’s even been speculated that all surgeries could be performed with AR. As opposed to virtual reality (VR) technology, AR superimposes computer imagery on the real world, through AR glasses or other headsets, allowing healthcare providers and their patients to visualize information as it’s applied in actual healthcare situations. This allows for greater efficiency, accuracy, personalization and overall better (and safer) care.
Augmented Reality Surgery
Surgeons wear AR headsets as they operate, allowing them to see information, such as patient imagery without turning away from their critical task. With the addition of cameras and AI software, surgeons and their AR/AI solutions can see what’s going on inside a patient, process vast amounts of data to interpret it and return on-the-fly diagnoses or procedural suggestions right in the AR headset.
In addition, solution providers have developed AR tools that allow healthcare providers to superimpose visuals on patients that help deliver safer care beyond the OR. For example, when administering medicine, nursing staff can view an overlay of a body’s vein structure to more easily identify the right vein and obviate the sometimes painful process of trial and error.
Augmented Reality Patient Education
Healthcare, especially surgery, can be unnerving for patients. Using AR, doctors can help patients visualize how their bodies work, how a particular condition might affect their health and even understand what specifically will happen during a procedure. With AI, such visualization can take into account a patient’s particular health data to personalize the experience for their situation.
Sometimes, it’s hard for patients to describe their symptoms, leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment. To the extent that symptoms manifest visibly, AR can help. Through AR glasses, patients can visualize different skin conditions compared to their own in order to more accurately describe their concerns to doctors. Or they can experience various eye conditions in AR to let doctors understand their condition.
AR, like VR, helps immerse patients in therapeutic environments that doctors can control. The FDA has already approved headset solutions that rely on cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients relax and deal with pain. Similarly, AR can be used during physical therapy to minimize discomfort. Combined with data about the patient’s particular pain, AI can help personalize the pain management experiences.
Perhaps the most prevalent use of AR in healthcare is in training. Doctors and medical students can explore the human body, practice procedures, understand new techniques and solutions, and more in virtualized environments that have all the characteristics of the real world. AI helps inform and interpret those environments so that they change and react in response to a doctor’s or med student’s actions. And because the AR environment is digital, it can be shared with others, so students in a classroom can see on a screen what their colleague is seeing through AR glasses.
The Vast Potential Of AR In Healthcare
At this point, we’re scratching the surface of what AR and AI can do for healthcare. Add to the mix a new generation of online collaboration tools and doctors wearing AR headsets that can consult with each other—even guide one another through a procedure, even when they’re physically miles away from each other. Others involved in healthcare, such as pharmaceutical and genomics companies, can use AR and AI to better visualize, analyze, discover and develop new drugs, viruses and therapies.
Of course, change can be daunting, especially when it comes to healthcare. When minimally invasive laparoscopy was first introduced—a procedure by which a surgeon accesses the abdomen with a camera and a tiny incision—it took time before it became regarded as a safe, preferred methodology.
To catalyze the process of safe implementation and trust, organizations can carry out thorough education and training: implement small-scale pilot projects to familiarize medical staff with AR-supported tools and stay consistently involved in the evolving AR industry to ensure solutions are as up to date as possible. Doing so can mitigate the fear of change that leadership or employees may feel, all while providing a peek at the exciting world of medicine enhanced by the world’s newest and most powerful technologies.
AR and AI are already proving safe and effective, and their impact stretches well beyond hospitals’ and doctors’ offices. And like other advances in healthcare, AR benefits from innovation.
Just as bigger, higher-resolution display monitors in modern operating rooms allow doctors to visualize patient information in greater detail, AR technology continues to develop for greater precision. Headsets that are easier to wear for long periods deliver truer representations of medical imagery and create a wider field of vision so wearers can take in more information while focusing on delivering exceptional care.
AR helps doctors do what they do best, with greater confidence and accuracy. Patients receive better, safer care. As the technology grows and develops, we all can expect new ways to see a healthier future.