Some of the great technological advancements of the past 25 years, from CT Scans to wearable technology, have fundamentally changed the way in which patients are diagnosed and treated, and have also dramatically improved the way in which medical practitioners are trained and educated.
Now we can add the very exciting concept of Augmented Reality (AR) to the list.
As part of a global market expected to reach a value of over $1.5bn by 2020, Augmented reality in healthcare has wide reaching implications that will transform the medical sector; from providing real-time data and assistance during complicated surgical procedures, to supporting aftercare and administration, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of Augmented Reality’s potential benefits to our health and well-being.
In this article we look at how AR technology is already being used to make existing healthcare processes more efficient and effective, supporting physicians in their training and daily practices, and enhancing the quality of care offered to patients.
What Is Augmented Reality?
Put simply, Augmented Reality is a technology that adds value to the real world by overlaying and displaying real-time digital information and media, such as videos and 3D models, via the camera view of your smartphone, tablet, PC or via wearable tech such as a viewfinder or smart glasses. If you’re picturing Tom Cruise in Minority Report or Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man movies, then you’re not too far off.
However this isn’t science fiction; AR is available right now and it’s improving all the time.
Under the broad umbrella of Augmented Reality user cases, we can observe immersive gaming experiences (such as first person shooters and real world puzzles), 3D modeling, and AR browsers that add contextual information to the real world around you.
It is primarily the latter two that have found their way into day-to-day medical practice.
Doctors and patients can use connected devices such as a smartphone or tablet to leverage this technology and add valuable data to their treatment, while the strides being made in connected lenses and glasses will make accessing this information even more seamless in the future.
How Can Augmented Reality Benefit Patients?
For patients, Augmented Reality can significantly improve the quality of treatment they receive from their healthcare provider. For starters, the risks associated with minimally invasive surgery (which involves making a small incision in the patient’s skin and inserting medical instruments) can be reduced by keeping the most important information front and center for the surgeon.
Where previously this type of surgery required monitors in the operating room to display vital statistics and images being delivered by an endoscopic camera, thanks to AR a surgeon can now wear smart glasses during the procedure and stay focused on the task at hand, therefore minimizing mistakes and reducing the need to multitask more than is perhaps necessary.
Secondly, patient education is hugely important when it comes to effective treatment and prevention. AR apps can be used to better illustrate the impact of particular diseases, and it has been demonstrated that a multi-sensory experience can actually be more effective in transmitting information. These apps can also help educate family members and carers with regards to the pathology and consequences of particular conditions, making their contribution to the well-being of their loved ones and clients more effective than ever before.
Painful and unpleasant procedures such as taking blood can be made that little bit more straightforward too thanks to Augmented Reality tech. For example, the already widely used AccuVein is a handheld scanner that illuminates the veins on a patient’s skin, helping nurses and doctors locate veins before inserting a needle.
AR technology can also help improve the management of a patient’s aftercare. Upon leaving hospital, a patient may be required to continue with certain treatments in order to successfully manage or eradicate a health issue. For older people in particular, it can become quite challenging to keep track of which medication to take and when to take it. Augmented Reality apps installed in smart glasses such as Google Glass can act as a digital healthcare assistant in reminding the patient to take their medicine at specific times or by encouraging them to eat better and exercise more.
And to help ensure a patient receives the best available care when admitted to a hospital, administrative staff must be able to manage records and access information as quickly and as efficiently as possible. By using Augmented Reality, time is saved, overheads are reduced, and the entire process is improved by reducing the possibility of human error.
How Can Augmented Reality Benefit Doctors?
The application of Augmented Reality in healthcare is two-fold for doctors; firstly there is the training and education aspect, allowing trainee physicians to lift their heads from their textbooks and better visualize the health issues they will one day be treating; and secondly, the technology will monumentally enhance their ability to diagnose and treat conditions by allowing them to access real-time data and patient information faster than ever before.
Training & Education Applications of AR
While it is of undoubted importance that medical students understand the theory behind surgical procedures, disease pathology, and human anatomy, they must also understand the real life implications. Augmented Reality technology allows medical training to become much more interactive and immediate, helping trainee physicians quickly join the dots from the theory in their books and white papers to the real world consequences.
For instance, apps can be used to overlay and display anatomical information on a 3D-printed human skeleton, allowing the student to revise the names of the bones, while offering a better understanding of how the human body operates. And AR can even be used to add interactive and valuable elements to the textbooks themselves. Instead of viewing a 2D illustration of the human heart, by simply placing an AR app over the specific page in the book, this can become a 3D beating heart, with more detail than could ever be offered by a simple diagram or photograph.
The standard and availability of quality learning materials has changed too, thanks to AR. Take for example Medical Realities, an innovative medical training organization that has built an impressive repository of surgical resources using Google Glass. Now their users can experience an operation through the eyes of an experienced consulting surgeon, seeing what they see and picking up on valuable techniques.
The accessibility of this kind of technology can and will make a huge difference to the standard of medical education across the globe. Being able to follow a real surgery from the viewpoint of the surgeon on a handheld device such as a tablet or smartphone is much more cost effective than medical simulators, while simultaneously reaching a much wider audience.
Diagnostic & Treatment Applications of AR
As we’ve already touched upon, the approach to minimally invasive surgeries can be improved by utilizing AR technologies, and the same rings true for more complex surgical procedures. Lives can be saved by allowing surgeons to access information quicker without having to shift their attention from the patient receiving the treatment. Vital statistics will be kept in their eye line as they operate, without being distracting and detrimental to the quality of care being provided. AR can also increase a surgeon’s field of view by overlaying an enlarged 3D version of vital organs as they conduct complex surgeries.
Meanwhile, soon-to-be commercially available technology such as Microsoft’s HoloLens could not only change the way doctors learn about the human anatomy, but also help them diagnose patients more effectively by overlaying CT scans and other imagery onto a patient’s body. Although not quite x-ray vision, it comes close, and will make diagnostic medicine a more rounded endeavor thanks to accurate visual information and real-time data.
And when it comes to the detection of particular maladies such as skin cancer, AR can help monitor and catch issues early in order to start treatment or prevent the disease taking hold altogether. High risk individuals can have worrying skin lesions and abnormal moles checked regularly, and the AR app can help the doctor quickly compare results and document change over a period of time.
How Can AppReal-VR Help?
Augmented Reality applications are among the most exciting and groundbreaking technology available today, and the potential for medical applications is staggering. By utilizing this technology, patients and doctors alike can make more informed healthcare decisions, leading to a better standard of care and a better quality of life.
And with a specialist understanding of virtual and augmented reality development, and a strong background in custom mobile app development, our team of experts are ready to help you stand apart in this most dynamic of marketplaces.
We can take your project from its initial concept through to visual design and technical development, delivering a world class, game changing Augmented Reality healthcare app.