Virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies have gained unprecedented popularity in the healthcare world over the past few years. Virtual and augmented reality disconnect people from the real world and partially or entirely immerse them in a virtual computer environment. It enables doctors and scientists to reach a whole new level of patient care, and it also opens up new opportunities for teachers and medical students in medical education. For example, such technology helps students learn complex surgical skills, while experienced surgeons plan complicated procedures.
Today, there are many applications of virtual and augmented reality in almost all areas of medicine. Some physicians use the technology to relieve pain and rehabilitate complex patients. However, the most significant benefit comes from its use in surgery. Not surprisingly, the global market volume in AR/VR/MR in healthcare has been on a steady upward trend.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how healthcare professionals are using technology in modern medicine, how patients benefit from it, and the benefits of using innovative technology in healthcare.
The first and most widespread application of AR technology in medicine is the visualization of patient medical data. Using augmented reality glasses and special programs, the doctor visualizes patient data such as CT and MRI scans and converts them into volumetric holograms – in this case, the patient’s organs or bones. The doctor can perform various manipulations with them: change their size, rotate, zoom in, examine them in sections in the required planes, measure, or work with separate parts of the hologram.
Our solution, XR Doctor, allows you to superimpose holograms directly on the patient during diagnostics, planning, and surgery.
It is also possible to visualize the patient’s chart, which is placed in the air. It helps the doctor not switch to a computer monitor and not be distracted from his work. This kind of diagnostics helps to see the sick or damaged organ in detail, after which the doctor can make an accurate diagnosis and choose the proper treatment.
Another advantage of such technology is the so-called “education” of the patient. If desired, the patient can also use augmented reality glasses and see their damaged organ in the form of a three-dimensional hologram. This is necessary to understand better what is happening to him and how he will be treated. This approach brings the doctor-patient relationship to an entirely new level, where the patient fully trusts the doctor as he thoroughly understands all the subsequent procedures.
VR devices are also used in diagnostics today. For example, to diagnose and prevent vision problems. The Russian company Total Vision has developed a helmet for diagnosing eye diseases. Sensors built into the display allow to identify “blind spots” in the human eye, indicating problems related to visual impairment. VR is also used to study the vestibular system.
Preoperative planning is a critical component of a good course of subsequent surgery. A thorough medical history, a careful review of medical data (ultrasound/CT/MRI/ X-ray), and an understanding of the future operation and recovery period are essential for a successful outcome of the planned intervention. Thus, AR technology in surgical planning allows the physician to shape future surgical manipulations as accurately as possible while reducing the risk of complications for treatment and subsequent postoperative recovery. Operation planner is a set of holograms based on the pre-designed 3D models of damaged organs/bones of the patient, osteotomy lines, locations of surgical templates, implants, prostheses for sequential application of each hologram following the stages of planning and conducting the operation.
Also, holograms can be used directly during the surgery and for postoperative control.
All this makes it possible to create new methods of surgeries, less traumatic, with the most optimal surgical access. As a result, all this contributes to a favorable course of operation and a reduced risk of postoperative complications.
VR and AR technologies allow inexperienced specialists to master practice in parallel with theory. First of all, this applies to the most complex medical field – surgery. During VR training, medical students are fully immersed in a virtual world, where they can thoroughly learn the body’s systems from the inside and at the same time practice surgical manipulations an unlimited number of times and without risk to an actual patient. VR significantly enhances learning and promotes the process of memorization.
AR technology has taken learning even further. Teachers can create instructional materials in a whole new way based on visualizing medical data in the form of holograms. Using holograms will allow the teacher to visually show the structure and movement of organs and body parts of “patients” from different sides, in other sections, changing sizes, revealing layers, breaking them down into separate elements and components. With the help of augmented reality glasses, a teacher can simultaneously display different types of information: photos, videos, “patient” indicators, treatment protocol, which improves the perception and memorization of students. According to medical research, AR technology improves students’ perception and memorization of information.
Students using augmented reality glasses gain experience interacting with holograms, practicing individual skills, applying them to diagnosis, planning, and surgery. In addition, students can study the structure of human body parts on a training hologram. This interactive way of presenting theoretical and practical information gives students a clear idea of their future work, improves memorization, and reduces the risk of poor perception.
Today, such technologies make it possible to broadcast operations worldwide and allow medical students to be in the operating room and connect to the procedure using their AR glasses.
In addition, AR visualization does not always require expensive equipment. For a more budget-friendly option, students can use their smartphones. Augmented reality can be easily integrated even in the current educational programs as an additional source of information: Hovering over an illustration in a textbook smartphone screen can display a three-dimensional and interactive 3D model of the organ in question, either healthy or with pathology.
Using holograms, virtual medical records, and augmented reality glasses, a physician provides the patient with a remote consultation, makes a diagnosis, performs the necessary treatment, or simply monitors the course of chronic disease. The patient, in turn, receives timely medical care by selecting the required specialist without even leaving home. Including, he can choose a doctor of any level, focus, and qualification, based on his needs and disease progression. This reduces the risk of spreading infections, which is so crucial during epidemics. As a result, the patient saves money and time by receiving high-quality medical care.
Doctors can consult with specialists of various profiles to clarify the diagnosis in complicated cases, regardless of geographic location. Using augmented reality glasses, the consulting physician sees the identical hologram and the same clinical case as the treating physician. And the ability to see the hologram “from the inside” and the ability to touch it helps even in the most severe cases.
The patient can also use augmented reality glasses to understand the diagnosis and treatment better or get a third opinion.
The same is true of an entirely new field – telesurgery.
The possibility of remote consultations makes it possible to involve world-class medical specialists to clarify the diagnosis, discuss the course of the operation, and consult during the surgery itself, which is especially valuable in complex surgical issues and non-standard clinical cases.
Simultaneous work of several people wearing glasses with the same model (hologram) allows seeing the model “with the same eyes.” Wearing augmented reality glasses, the consulting surgeon sees the identical hologram and the same clinical case as if he were personally in the operating room during the surgery and performed it. That is, the “personal presence effect” is created. In this way, the specialist consultant can follow the operation, commenting and suggesting the most appropriate surgical manipulations, helping the operating surgeon avoid the risk of error. The same approach is the basis for planning surgeries and mutual consultation between surgeons regardless of distance, even if they are thousands of kilometers apart.
The ability to connect the best specialists to surgery, as well as the technology’s ability to look at and “touch” lesions on the inside, makes surgical treatment of rare diseases and the most severe, and somewhere as yet inoperable cases, universally available. All this brings modern medicine to an even higher level – in places where there is no medical care now, with AR technology, a person can receive first-class treatment.
Telemedicine – Remote Surgery Execution in Shared AR Space
In scientific research, the use of AR technologies allows the creation of new methods of operations. They make it possible to see organs volumetrically, as if from inside a person, place them on top of the body, enlarge them, rotate them, etc. For example, in cases of heart defects in children. That is, even before surgery, holograms allow us to enlarge a small heart and understand in detail what’s inside it without opening the chest. The use of technology, in this case, makes it possible to expand the range of methods used to work with patients’ medical data, as well as to form new scientific directions in medical treatment and surgery.
Rehabilitation, mental disorders, and treatment
VR is now used in the rehabilitation of patients with damage to the motor system, adaptation after a stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, in the treatment of some mental disorders, and the relief of symptoms of chronic diseases.
According to medical research by the FEFU STI Center, VR rehabilitation will speed up recovery from stroke by 30%.
In this case, VR is also used to increase patients’ engagement with exercise during rehabilitation by combining training and computer games.
Mindmaze technology uses VR headsets and brain images to alleviate phantom pain in amputee patients and recover from stroke or trauma.
Recent studies show that children with cerebral palsy show a significant improvement in their mobility after VR therapy. VR allows physiotherapists and neurologists to make the therapy process interactive and at the same time more effective than conventional exercises. If necessary, some VR devices can monitor the quality of the patient’s activity and quantify progress.
In the treatment of psychological disorders or trauma, virtual reality can get rid of various fears due to the possibility of immersing a person in a real place, where the patient gradually meets his virtual phobias.
Reducing stress and pain
By interacting with VR technology, patients become fully immersed in a virtual environment and thus gain the illusion of space and time. In this way, we “trick” the brain. We feel less pain as our brains and attention are spent interacting with the virtual reality world.
Earlier studies with neurological and postoperative pain patients have shown decreased pain levels when using VR to distract them from painful stimuli.
VR is also needed where social and communication skills require the highest level of professionalism. Virtual reality allows inexperienced doctors to put themselves in the shoes of a person with a condition. This makes it easier for young doctors to recognize the symptoms of rare diseases, and at the same time, they begin to understand their clients better.
For example, Embodied Labs suggests putting yourself in the shoes of Alfred, a 74-year-old African-American man suffering from yellow spot degeneration and high-frequency hearing loss.
Thus, VR/AR has already proven its effectiveness in diagnosis, treatment, and medical education. At the same time, the global market for VR/AR/MR technologies is growing, displaying a trend for further development in the coming years. The world of medicine sees excellent prospects for the use of AR/VR in surgery, telemedicine, patient rehabilitation and treatment of psycho-emotional disorders, and the mass implementation in universities for the training of medical students and doctors improving their skills at various medical centers.
Such innovative technologies help save on training costs, improve doctors’ skills and patient safety, or attract the attention of the global scientific community for further research in the field.