Augmented Reality in Healthcare: Doctors to Gain Superhuman Powers

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By Leo Petersen-Khmelnitski

This is Part 1 of the text dedicated to augmented reality (AR) technologies in healthcare. It will give the definition of AR, differ it from VR, provide a brief background from early 90s till today, tell what AR gives to healthcare, and present key numbers on the current state of the healthcare AR market. Part 2 will focus on the current adoption areas of AR in healthcare, future and challenges.

What is AR?

Augmented reality (AR) is created when computer generated information is overlayed on the real world. The Medical Futurist notes that “augmented reality is the enhancement of the real-world environment in a way”. In plain words, AR projects digital information into existing surroundings of a user. The most cited example of modern AR is Google Glass.

What makes AR reality useful in healthcare? WebMD concludes that it is the ability of AR “to merge virtual images into the real world, including real objects and real people”. It means that a doctor or a nurse may see things right that they otherwise cannot see. In AR, data is overlaid on top of real world as see it with our eyes.

In this aspect, augmented reality differs from virtual reality (VR). Virtual reality is immersive. It means that a uses “dives in” a full-scale made-up world, in 3D with sound. The VR user can engage with this virtual world in a variety of ways. However, virtual reality itself exists totally apart from the offline, real reality.

Augmented reality overlays data on top of our natural surroundings to aid users in navigating their surroundings. While virtual reality immerses users in a simulated environment, augmented reality overlays data on top of our natural environment in real-time.

From 1992 till Today

First AR adoptions in healthcare date back to the early 1990s, to the Virtual Fixtures Platform developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Dr Louis Rosenberg recalls the first testing in 1992 where users were required to move metal pegs between holes half a meter apart in order to quantify if virtual overlays could enhance manual performance. Though the first two decades of AR in healthcare were quite slow, in June 2020, neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore announced the first augmented reality surgery. Now, some thirty years later since the first experiments, a team at Johns Hopkins, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and Washington University, performed delicate spinal surgery on 28 patients using AR to assist in the placement of metal screws with precision under 2-mm.

It is a unique feature of AR that the user does not lose their sense of reality, since the user is not disconnected from reality, and that the user can view the information quickly. As augmented reality emerges as the leading technological advancement in medicine in the future, it is likely to become one of the most important factors in its development.

What AR Gives

To patients: there is some evidence to support the idea that Augmented Reality can be effective for treating patients both mentally and behaviorally. Immersive technologies can also serve as useful tools for fostering empathy between patients and their caregivers as well as facilitating early disease diagnosis and treatment.

AR can also help patients describe their symptoms better. An accurate diagnosis needs symptoms detailed out accurately. Some patients struggle with describing their symptoms. AR services that assess impact of specific conditions on a person’s vision or those that show a simulation of the vision of a patient suffering from a specific condition, aid patients to understand their symptoms and their actual medical state. Other healthcare related AR projects currently in development focus on presenting scenarios of possible future developments to patients.

To doctors: The Venturebeat concludes that doctors will obtain “superhuman capabilities for visualizing medical images, patient data, and other clinical content”.

Presently, doctors view these images on flat screens and must visualize how they relate to their patients. In contrast, augmented reality allows doctors to place medical images in 3D space precisely where they will be most useful – perfectly aligned with the body of their patient. It is without a doubt that doctors in 2030 will look back on the old method of glancing at flat screens as somewhat primitive.

‘Peering back’ into a patient’s body is yet another AR that excites Venturebeat. With AR headsets, doctors can capture 3D images of patients and view those images aligned with their bodies later.

In addition, doctors will be able to overlay content on the body of their patients and integrate it with that body to assist them in a variety of clinical tasks. Increasing accuracy, reducing mental effort, and speeding up the process are the main objectives.

In augmented surgery, surgeons will be able to visualize bones and internal organs of patients without having to cut open a body. Surgeons will be able to access real-time patient information.

In augmented practice, with AR it will be easy to simulate patients and surgical encounters for students. AR technologies can allow medical students to visualize and practice theories during their training.

Also, AR allows virtual collaboration between physicians, notes a healthcare AI practitioner. If the primary surgeon is away, and a specialist on hand has possession of AR tools, then the professional can follow instructions and help.

Healthcare AR Market Facts

  • According to Zion Market Research, the global healthcare AR/VR market will reach USD 5,115 Million By 2025. The estimate is at a CAGR of around 29% between 2019 and 2025.
  • Experts highlight the AR market would grow into an USD 18B valuation by 2023.
  • Gartner states that 5G mobile network technology represents an opportunity to accelerate the adoption of AR.