Science fiction is science fact in healthcare. Don’t believe us? Check out the medical tablets at your next visit in your doctor’s office. Or watch a surgical robot perform in the operating room as it is controlled remotely by the surgeon hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. The healthcare industry, from medical offices to hospitals, is simply awash with devices that were the stuff of writers’ imaginations just a decade or two ago.

Augmented reality is one of those buzzwords being bandied about as the “Next Big Thing” in healthcare tech. What is it exactly, though? And how viable is the technology for improving health?

What is AR, and How Can it Help Doctors?

Augmented reality (AR) is, according to various online infodumps, an “interactive 3D experience that combines a view of the real world with computer-generated elements.” Technobabble aside, AR is basically images and sounds created by a device that, when viewed through it, look like they are part of the real world. A simple execution of this idea would be a pair of glasses that display the time in the upper corner of the viewer’s field of vision. A more elaborate example is the “Pokemon Go” AR game that took the world by storm when it made its debut in 2016. Users with the app would simply aim their smartphone camera at a real-world landmark (e.g., a room, doghouse, an empty field) and see images of Pokemon characters seemingly standing there. Gamers would then try to “catch them all” as they moved about to different locations.

Other examples of AR include viewing virtual recreations of famous landmarks overlaying the current ruins, or avoiding that virtual velociraptor’s attacks in the office hallway.

AR’s abilities to overlay with real-world objects and interact with users have many in the healthcare industry excited: the technology has applications for use in such diverse areas as information accessibility, telehealth, physical therapy, and training.

AR for Real-Time Record Access

Information is vital in healthcare. In fact, having the right bit of detail can literally be a life-or-death matter depending on the particulars of a medical case. Nurses and clinicians in the past used to review reams of papers to care for patients. Unfortunately, such documentation could be misplaced, misfiled, or simply lost. And accidents like a spilled cup of water on the wrong binder could ruin years of patient data.

AR technology can be a great assistance. It could allow a doctor to access a patient’s chart from the EMR system and display it in their field of vision﹘or through a medical tablet﹘while assessing the patient.

That’s convenient, certainly, but consider combining such a system with a barcode reader or even facial recognition software. Now the doctor can merely look at the patient’s hospital bracelet or even their face, and get a full read-out of their 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

Another proposed use of AR is for increasing accessibility to specialist care. Let’s say a general practitioner (GP) needs the expertise of a surgeon to properly treat the patient in the examining room. None, though, are available on-site. With AR, the GP can contact an off-site surgeon to guide them with live, up-to-date advice that pops up on their glasses as they work. Since the surgeon can see what the GP is doing from a first-person perspective thanks to AR, the quality of care is nearly identical to being in the same room. 

This kind of AR could even be implemented without the above-mentioned glasses. Instead, an AR-adapted medical panel PC mounted on a swivel arm could be used. The GP simply aims the computer at the patient’s body, wound area, or surgical site, and the AR does the rest, overlaying the relevant information for both clinicians.

Improving Physical Therapy with AR

Physical therapy is painful, exhausting, and when done incorrectly, can extend recovery of the patient, potentially making things worse.

That’s where AR can come in. As shown earlier with “Pokemon Go”, AR technology can work with smartphones. PT patients can download an “AR physical therapy app” for use in the privacy of their home. This type of digital overlay could teach them the correct way to perform all of their required exercises, improving the efficacy of physical therapy.

Example: Glasses fitted with AR could overlay a sort of digital “wireframe skeleton” over a patient. The AR would be programmed to help visualize the exact required motion of a specific exercise. The patient, while viewing themselves and the wireframe in a full-length mirror (or on a TV or screen), can see when a particular movement is correctly or incorrectly performed: the front foot lights up red if it isn’t far out enough, or the pelvis and spine starts blinking if the patient is bending forward when the torso should be upright.

The technology could be extended to make PT even fun. A study published in China found that AR-based games, paired with motion sensors, have shown a measurable positive effect on both a patient’s mental states and their physical health. Such games could help elderly patients embrace fitness routines they might otherwise have shunned.

AR Makes Medical Training Better

The average person knows the processes to become doctors and nurses are long and grueling. Many non-medical folks don’t realize it continues after graduation with periodic tests, courses, and even schooling to maintain requisite licenses.

AR can make things easier. Medical and nursing students could, for example, bring up a 3D textbook that looks like it was conjured right in the air. As this video demonstration shows, the user is shown a full 3D rendering of a human body. This allows them to examine the nervous system, the skeletal structure, the circulatory tracks, or any other system, body part, or location. With simple gestures, the student can reveal or cover different “layers” of the 3D anatomy.

Besides being a teaching tool for learning rote anatomy, AR can also be used for things like low-risk, virtual surgery training. How? In theory, a fully-realized copy of a patient’s systems could be created after a full body scan. Surgeons could access this copy anytime to review steps of the upcoming surgery. This copy could then be overlaid over a live patient. The surgeon, having already practiced in AR, would know exactly how to proceed.

Finally, AR could help train the next generation of caregivers. AR is being trial-tested with the students at the Department of Nursing at the Chang Gun University in Taiwan. There, they are using a combination of AR glasses or camera headsets, handheld devices like mobile phones and medical tablets, 3D learning materials, and even AI teaching and assessment, for their training in elderly care. The trials, while still ongoing, have shown great promise.

Making Reality Better

The wild imaginings of science fiction are steadily becoming reality. Augmented reality is one of those technologies, bringing virtual overlaying techniques to great effect in healthcare from medical staff training, record-keeping, to 3D surgeries. Contact Cybernet today to learn more about AR and integrating its cutting-edge methods with medical computers and medical tablets.