AR, or “augmented reality” isn’t just for video games and experiencing media — many in the healthcare industry believe AR could improve training, quality of care, and telehealth immensely.

How does augmented reality technology complement healthcare, medical computers, and other existing technologies? What are the big ideas coming to a hospital near you, and how viable is the technology for improving health?

What is AR, and How Can it Help Doctors?

AR is similar to virtual reality, but distinct in that it isn’t meant to completely take over the senses (specifically the sight) of the user. The basic philosophy is to keep the user’s sight intact while improving it with digital overlays.

A simple execution of this idea, for example, would be a pair of glasses that could display the time in the upper corner of the user’s field of vision.

Obviously, that’s an extremely mundane use of AR, but it’s good for illustrating the concept. AR has also been used for video games — consider the “Pokemon Go” game that was popular recently. The user holds their phone up and can see the real world through their camera, but the game creates images of Pokemon characters seemingly standing in the real world.

While these have been fun or interesting applications, healthcare (and other industries) have been taking a hard look at AR technology for its potential world-changing solutions. And, perhaps most beneficial, is that many of these AR programs can be used with pre-existing medical tablets.

AR for Real-Time Record Access

Electronic medical records aren’t exactly the most beloved aspect of practicing medicine, but imagine a world where accountability could be increased and the odds of a medical mistake could be greatly decreased.

AR technology, combined with EHR systems, could allow a doctor to access a patient’s chart and other relevant medical information and have it visible in their field of vision — or through a medical tablet — as they assess the patient.

That’s convenient, certainly, but consider combining such a system with a barcode reader or even facial recognition software. Then, the doctor could merely look at the patient’s hospital bracelet — or even their face — and get a full read-out of their patient history and medication right before their very eyes.

This not only decreases the chance of a patient getting prescribed the wrong medication or undergoing the wrong procedure, but it also increases the speed and efficiency of the hospital overall.

Improving Long-Distance Procedures

The field of telehealth is an exciting new area of medicine, with the stated goal of improving access to medical services independent of location.

While it’s talked about mostly in the context of digital doctor visits with patients, telehealth, combined with AR, can actually be hugely beneficial in clinician-to-clinician communication.

One of the most interesting proposed uses of AR is for increasing accessibility to specialist care. For instance, if the required specialist is nowhere near the primary care physician of a patient who needs their help, it could be possible for the general practitioner to put on something like a Microsoft Hololens and allow the distant specialist to send information right to the GP’s field of vision.

This could also be used for surgeries or other procedures, allowing a specialist to guide their colleague with live, up-to-date advice that pops up on their glasses as they work, combined with the specialist’s voice in their ear. And since the specialist can see what the other doctor is doing from a first-person perspective, the quality of care could be nearly identical to having the specialist in the room.

This kind of AR could even be implemented without fancy glasses — even a nearby medical touch screen computer mounted on a swivel arm could be brought around to point at the patient. The in-person doctor could then see “through” the monitor, as it were, with the specialist’s advice overlaid across the patient’s body, wound area, or surgical site.

This isn’t just convenience — it allows specialists to help more patients, in more areas, at far greater volume.

Improving Physical Therapy with AR

Physical rehabilitation can be one of the most difficult processes a patient can undergo. Physical therapy is painful, exhausting, and when done incorrectly, can extend recovery and even make things worse.

That’s where AR can come in. Glasses fitted with AR could overlay a sort of digital wireframe skeleton over the patient and could be programmed to help visualize the exact required motion of a specific PT exercise.

The patient could look in a full-length mirror (or on a TV or screen) and perform the required exercise — let’s say lunges, for example. The wireframe skeleton being overlaid could respond when the movement was done incorrectly — the front foot lighting up red if it isn’t far out enough, or the pelvis and spine blinking if the patient is bending forward when the torso should be upright.

This type of digital overlay would improve the efficacy of physical therapy, teaching patients the correct way to perform all of their required exercises.

Using AR Games to Promote Fitness

Of course, AR doesn’t have to be limited to just those undergoing physical therapy. A study published in China found that AR-based games, paired with motion sensors, can have a measurable positive effect on both patient’s mental states and their physical health.

They found that these AR games could also help elderly patients embrace fitness routines they might otherwise have shunned.

AR Makes Medical Training Better

Augmented reality, like virtual reality, can enable hands-on training methods for doctors and nurses, while still enjoying the low-risk qualities of operating on fruit and dummies. These methods also reduce the use of cadavers, which are not always in great supply.

Surgical Training with 3D AR Visualization

Programs like “3D4Medical” combine AR, mapping, and rendering technology to create a kind of 3D textbook that can be conjured right in the air. As this video demonstration shows, the user is shown a full 3D rendering of a human body. The anatomy is perfect, and different “layers” can be revealed or covered with simple gestures. This allows the user to examine the nervous system, the skeletal structure, the circulatory system, or any other system, body part, or location.

This kind of visual learning is not only beneficial as a teaching tool for learning rote anatomy: it can also be used for things like low-risk, virtual surgery training.

It could also be used to generate a fully-realized copy of a patient’s systems that could be accessed at any time by the doctor. In theory, after a full body scan of a patient, this holographic image could be laid over a real live patient, allowing the doctor or surgeon a fully manipulatable 3D version of the patient’s body close at hand. This would allow for unprecedented access to patient data and patient anatomy.

Training New Nurses

Augmented reality has already been deployed to select nursing schools to help train the next generation of caregivers.

Right now, in facilities like the Department of Nursing at the Chang Gun University in Tawain, AR is being trial-tested. They are testing both worn devices (like the prototypical AR glasses or camera headsets), and handheld devices like mobile phones and medical tablets.

The trials are still ongoing, but the teaching methods show great promise: these include simulated classrooms for mobile or long-distance learning, interactive simulations of patient procedures, digital e-books, 3D learning materials, and even AI teaching and assessment.

Making Reality Better

The medical field is on the verge of a VR and AR boom that could improve patient outlooks, clinician education, and telehealth all in one fell swoop.

Are your medical computer systems up to the challenge of a new pioneer of digital infrastructure? Contact Cybernet today to learn more about integrating cutting-edge methods with medical computers and medical tablets.