Augmented and Virtual Reality in Medicine and Health Care

Healthcare is an industry where the stakes don’t get any higher - it is human life itself. Needless to say, the effectiveness of the health care system is highly dependent on its use of the most advanced cutting-edge solutions. Considering the public interest and involvement as well as funding, health care (more so than other industries) is more open to the new technologies. 

Even on a surface thought, VR & AR and Healthcare seems to be a natural fit. These technologies offer feasible solutions to the many challenges of the health care system and as such offer numerous diverse opportunities of its implementations in various areas - such as general diagnostics and medical training.

Trials and Issues of the Healthcare System

It is a well-known fact that health care systems in every country are tangled with numerous challenges. These challenges come from multiple directions and they are especially prominent on the ground level, as the situation seems to be in a permanent state of demand greatly exceeding the supply.

On one hand, there are purely logistical issues, such as lack of accessibility of the medical service for the patients due to complicated location. Then there is an issue with a limited access and availability of equipment which is often outdated not even nearly as effective as it should be.

On the other hand, there is a permanent problem with the lack of available personnel in many local institutions. The reality of a situation is that many local hospitals are often struggling to handle intense workflow not to mention emergency situations.

The list can go on. All these challenges can be eased with an implementation of VR/AR. However, there is also another reason why the union of Healthcare and VR/AR has so much potential.

AR / VR and the Healthcare System

How can VR/AR help the health care system to handle these challenges? First of all, it will make many things easier to carry out. Next comes increased accessibility of the services and finally Augmented and Virtual Reality in Medicine can critically affect the effectiveness of the medical services itself and drastically increase its overall efficiency.

Virtual Reality in medicine statistics:

Virtual Reality in Healthcare Statistics 2012 - 2017

What is important to note is that unlike other industries, where implementation of AR/VR seems to be more of the icing on a cake (most notably in Entertainment) - in case of Virtual and Augmented reality and Virtual Reality in Healthcare - it is the opposite. In fact, VR/AR solutions can put the existing health care system status quo upside down and make it more effective than it ever was.

In other words, the implementation of AR / VR use in healthcare can be game-changing.

But that is just a part of the story. On the other hand - VR/AR needs Healthcare solutions to evolve. Here’s why.

Uses of Virtual Reality in Healthcare

Improved Patient Experience

Patient experience is one of those elusive things that barely gets mentioned when it comes to talking about how VR & AR can make Healthcare system better. However, in reality, patient experience is the one field that gets the most out of the implementation of VR & AR to the operation.

Immersion and engagement matter a lot for a successful treatment and it is often the one thing that gets limited attention due to its relatively inconsequential influence in a grand scheme of things. I mean - when it comes to matters of life and death, customer experience is not the thing that comes to mind first.

With that being said, Augmented Reality solution can greatly improve the overall patient experience and make it less problematic by adding pop-up information and navigating features among other things.

The other way, AR & VR healthcare applications can improve Patient Experience is via an extension. As you know, chronic patients often experience the discomfort of being partially left to their own devices in-between the procedures. VR & AR can make their experience a little bit less uncomfortable and probably more exciting.

For example, AR & VR can be used to maintain a better communication with the relatives. Also, Virtual reality physical therapy can be used to spend time in the places outside the hospital in an elaborate variation of “try before you buy” scenario (you can read more about this in our article about VR & AR tourism). On the other hand, AR can help patient to keep track of their vital stats and stay tuned with their therapy progress in a more engaging manner.

Psychological Relief and Treatment

Immersion factor also opens up a gateway towards new ways of therapy. For example, an elaborate virtual reality environment can be used for pain reduction and improvement of sleep habits. Also, VR can be used to help amputees to get accustomed to their state and experience once again their missing limbs.

On the other hand, specific environments can be used to treat the mental condition, such as anxiety, various kinds of phobias and addictions. VR Healthcare Simulation of events can help better understand the patterns of disorders and develop more effective treatment strategies.

VR has proved to be extremely effective in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders of a different kind. There are two distinct modes in which such treatment can be realized - the one aimed at relaxation and stabilization of the patient and the other aimed at teaching the patient to overcome the PTSD bouts. However, in this case, it is too early to claim that this approach is effective in the long run.

Data Visualization / Body Mapping/ Interactive Patient Information

The easiest way in which Augmented reality can neatly fit into healthcare system is through visualizing data. Case in point - visualized patient data with a possibility of live stats.

Relevant patient information is one of the crucial elements that enables effective treatment. However, even with the most advanced data management systems - the scope of gathered information might be impenetrable or confusing for the doctors. Usually, it is all placed on numerous monitors surrounding the patient and control rooms.

Augmented reality can show the stats directly on the patient’s body - pointing out the problematic points and showing relevant stats.

While it sounds complicated, the whole thing can fit into a pair of smart glasses and accessed through the smartphone.

Another important way to fit VR and AR into the examination process is via Body mapping. A full recreation of the patient's body may come in handy when the case is extremely complicated or when the doctor is physically unavailable to attend the examination.

In every case, the challenge comes with the accuracy of incoming data and configuration of the hardware. Considering that the whole operation will require the connection and synchronization of multiple sensors, it seems that it will take some time before this approach will really blossom.

Advanced Diagnostics / Risk Assessment

Diagnostics is one of the critical areas of healthcare that often relies on precise results and close assessment of various symptoms. It is a dubious and often tedious task where every detail matters and can potentially break the diagnosis in a different direction (for an illustration, just watch a random episode of House M.D.)

What Augmented reality can add to the table? Lots of stuff, actually. AR can play a big role in more efficient detecting, preventing and treating many diseases. Starting from visualizing information coming from sensors into one cohesive interface to showing potential causes of a patient's state via analysis.

With AR - a doctor can look through the layers of patient - check veins, organs, lesions, and other things without actually penetrating. All this can increase the precision of a diagnosis. And that is always a good thing.

Microsoft’s HoloLens is one of the premier examples of this. With its help, doctors can do all sorts of checks and simulations with the live stats and extract more valuable data for further research.

VR Surgery Run-Throughs

Surgeries require intricacy and attention to the detail in order to be effective. Surgery done right is something like a military operation. It goes in bouts of intense of planning and consideration of various options results in a methodical realization of the plan step by step over short periods of time. Seems like a perfect place for Virtual & Augmented reality solutions.

AR & VR Surgery can provide models for planning an operation and playing out various scenarios in order to optimize the sequence and prepare a course of action for any circumstances. While there are doubts that the VR environment will be able to play out every detail of the proposed scenario any time soon, the prospect to the technology improving the process of preparation is exciting.

AR Surgery Assistance

Surgery is one of the most exciting areas where Augmented reality can be implemented. There can be several ways it can be done.

Let’s count them down:

  1. As a visual shorthand for basic operating procedures required in different scenarios (for example, with an assistance of Hologram monitors);
  2. As a reference board with various information emerging at request - such as a patient care, patient’s vital stats, critical information on a disease and its treatment, etc.
  3. As a remote assistance in extremely difficult cases that require increased caution over possible consequences;  

As such AR can be extremely useful in cases when surgery is required in complicated conditions or within a limited area.

With a help of VR, surgeons can work out the surgery beforehand and experience possible outcomes without actually having to deal with them in reality. Such “rehearsals” can help to make the whole operation more precise and controlled.

Virtual Reality can also solve an issue of availability in extreme scenarios. VR environment can be wired to the remote-controlled robot which will handle actual operation while the surgeon performed the routine elsewhere. While this approach is unlikely to replace surgeons completely, it can come in handy in some situations.

Medical Education / Training Simulation

One of the biggest global challenges of the health care system is an infinite lack of trained professionals. There is always too much disease going on and there is nearly not enough time to prepare medical personnel to answer the call. However, implementation of VR & AR solutions can seriously simplify the whole process of medical education and subsequent training.

For starters, VR Healthcare Training is a good way of studying human anatomy layer by layer and the mechanics of the human body. On the other hand, AR & VR provide interactivity which provides much more profound insight into nuances of the body functions.

Cutting edge technology is especially critical when it comes to the training stage as it is near-impossible to imitate near-real life conditions in order to prepare professionals. This is less of an issue with an implementation of VR.

With a little help of a headset and a wide array of various sensors - it is possible to recreate a scenario that will put to test trainee’s skills in a much more engaging manner. A possibility to experience a surgery not as a passive spectator but in a simulated scenario is a priceless test of skill.

Doctor Consultation

Doctor consultation is one of the integral element of the healthcare system. It is what makes it backbone and serves as an early warning protection from potential threats.

However, doctor consultations are not always available in certain remote locations. Implementation of VR services for that is a logical solution to this problem. With its help, doctors will be able to provide coherent eye-to-eye contact and also deliver some basic services like pulse examination and emotion reading (vital for psychological therapy consultations). and

For example, such a thing is practiced on American Antarctic Reseach Stations. On the other hand, such practice is tried out in India.

Emergency Navigation

Healthcare apps can also benefit from navigation and geolocation features as well. First and foremost, routing can be used in finding the closest hospital and guiding to it. While its practicality is still limited, it is an option that can potentially save someone’s life and that is always important.

On the other hand, routing can be used by patients to navigate in large hospital structures in order to find where their doctors are situated or how to get to a place where their procedure will take place. It might seem unnecessary when you're healthy, but when you're sick and need the path of least resistance, an app like this might be a lifesaver (especially when you're at a large hospital.)

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We developed our own AR Navigation app - AR Places Map. It is designed specifically to simplify movement in the city and navigate in the different leisure opportunities. You can read about it here.

Features include:

  • Locations of interest (restaurants, cafes, and other points of interest) on the map and in Augmented Reality mode
  • Information about restaurants, art galleries, parks, and more
  • Navigation and direction to the points of interest

Download AR Places Map on Apple App Store

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Future of Virtual Reality in Healthcare: Win-Win

One of the key aspects of a health care philosophy - the one stated in a Hippocratic Oath is “Do No Harm.” It is extremely important to come up not only with effective solutions to the problem but also to keep them within reasonable boundaries that will prevent any possible direct or side effect harm.

Here’s an example: it is one thing to just do an augmented reality application that will deal with some problem (for example, navigation routing) with the approximated result with a possibility for minor measurement errors. There is no irreversible aftermath if it fails (aside from minor annoyance). However, in the case of AR solutions for something like surgery - minor measurement errors might cost a life which is not something you can fix.

The stakes are much higher and consequences matter more in health care and medical science. There is no room for excuses like making a simplified version of a human body with some details omitted for performance reasons instead of a precise recreation. It will be just useless this way. A tool must be as precise as possible and this is a considerable and ultimately productive challenge for the developers of AR / VR applications.

It is something that can transform the very mindset with which the development of AR/VR in the healthcare industry is approached to a more responsible and responsive. In the case of Virtual Reality applications, it is also worth noting that every VR solution for health care also contributes to the research of the long-term effects of using Virtual Reality (therefore, win-win for all.)

Let’s hope that in the near future we all will be dazzled by the technological breakthroughs made possible by the development of AR / VR in healthcare.

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Volodymyr Bilyk

Content Manager