By blurring the lines of reality and imagination, augmented reality (AR) experiences can amaze and entertain in equal measure. Augmented reality is a visually stunning immersive technology that works by overlaying the real world with digital content. With the development of accessible and affordable hardware, coupled with advances in the creation of photo realistic and high quality content, AR technology has evolved into a creative tool that has practical applications across a broad range of sectors, including healthcare.
The global AR healthcare market size was valued at $609.60 million in 2018 and is projected to reach $4,237.60 million by 2026. These projections indicate that augmented reality in healthcare isn’t simply a flash in the pan gimmick, it’s here to stay. Whether it is supporting diagnosis, treatment of patients, to harnessing its power to educate and inform, augmented reality has the potential to revolutionise working practices across the healthcare sector and ultimately improve patient care.
Benefits of Using AR in the Healthcare Sector
Helping to train healthcare professionals
Training and developing the skills and knowledge base of future generations of medical professionals is a significant benefit of the adoption of AR across the healthcare sector.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, AR has proven to be a critical tool in developing skills of medical students, and has potentially accelerated the adoption of AR technologies for training purposes. During this time, one of the impacts of this highly contagious and potentially fatal virus within the hospital environment was that medical students were no longer able gain direct access to ward rounds, which has traditionally been central to their learning.
To address this critical threat to the skills development of future healthcare professionals, Barts Health NHS Trust and the Queen Mary University of London took an innovative approach.
They introduced virtual ward rounds for students – Professor Shafi Ahmed would don a Microsoft Hololens headset during his ward rounds, with high quality content livestreamed to students in a lecture theatre.
In effect, this meant that students weren’t simply accompanying the Professor on his rounds from a remote location, but they were able to see patients through his eyes. Augmented reality, In many ways, this allowed students to get closer to the action, for example by gaining better access to in depth patient medical records including X-rays and CT scans, as well as to patient consultations and examinations.
As Professor Ahmed notes: “My work over the last six years at Queen Mary using Google Glass, virtual reality, holograms, avatars and mixed reality has shown that immersive and exponential technologies represent a paradigm shift in how we deliver effective medical education.”
Assistance tool for surgeons
Technologies such as the Microsoft Hololens are being used by surgeons to assist with and streamline surgical procedures, and in February 2020, the first ever AR guided operation was performed at the Sant’Orsola hospital in Bologna. During an operation to resect and reposition the patient’s upper jaw to restore their biting function, lead surgeon, Giovanni Badiali, used an AR headset to access critical real time patient data including heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure and breathing rate, in addition to pre-operative images from CT, MRI and 3DUS scans.
The ability to access patient data at speed is the key to its successful adoption of AR in surgical procedures, where every second counts. As Giovanni Badiali explains: “We are on the edge of a medical revolution in terms of surgical navigation… We could be working seamlessly in the future. For surgeries, this means a great gain of time and a reduction of mental work to do the connections between the virtual and the real. All the information arrives in real time. Time is the greatest beneficiary of this technology.”
Augmented reality has also been adopted by nurses and doctors to improve vein detection. This addresses the issue that for many patients, having blood extracted can be traumatising and uncomfortable, as well as challenging for the practitioner, as finding a vein can sometimes be difficult, especially when patients have heavily pigmented skin or small blood vessels.
AR-driven technologies such as Accuvein can be applied to address these issues. This technology uses a combination of a laser-based scanner, processing system and digital laser projection housed in a portable, handheld device. This gives practitioners the chance to view a virtual real-time image of the underlying vasculature on the surface of the skin. This gives them the chance to detect veins more effectively, as well as providing guidance for undertaking intravenous injections with minimal discomfort for the patient.
Enhancing patient consultations
It isn’t just healthcare professionals that benefit from the adoption of augmented reality in the healthcare sector; it can also directly benefit patients too. Immersive technologies such as augmented and virtual reality have tangible results in terms of enhancing learning processes, and this is increasingly being recognised when it comes to building a patient’s understanding of their medical conditions. By using AR to support patient consultations, patients can now gain more in depth and informed insights through the use of augmented reality in consultations.
Yan Fossat, vice president of Klick Labs at Klick Health explained that by “giving someone the ability to instantly see a disease or condition on their own skin, or enabling them to see what someone with – say – macular degeneration sees is more impactful than other forms of visual and textual representation.”
AR-based 3D body scanning to improve diagnosis and treatment
Visually driven technologies such as X-rays and CT scans are commonplace in the healthcare sector. Put simply, they help medical professionals to see inside people’s bodies to detect, diagnose and treat patients.
Augmented reality can build on these established technologies. With the potential to create accurate and realistic 3D images that can be accessed and scrutinised by practitioners via augmented reality hardware such as the Microsoft Hololens. This can help to accelerate diagnosis and improve patient care.
The Future of AR in Healthcare
As the tangible benefits are already starting to be realised, the future of augmented reality in the healthcare sector has never looked healthier. Moreover, with the rollout of 5G technology, augmented reality will be taken to the next level and will be critical in opening the door to new working practices, from supporting remote monitoring of patients through to improving reliability for use in the operating theatre. Augmented reality has the potential to have a positive impact across all areas of the healthcare sector – from developing the skills of the next generation of medical practitioners through to improving detection, diagnosis and treatment of conditions. Ultimately, AR can help to improve patient care; a universal benefit for us all.