As populations continue to boom and people live longer and longer, healthcare services the world over are coming under ever-increasing pressure. Coupled with rising expectations about access to and quality of healthcare provision, increased demand is seeing resources stretched and costs skyrocket.
Healthcare provision is one of the cornerstones of modern society. Being able to adequately meet increasing demand is the key challenge the medical profession faces both now and in the foreseeable future. It is a puzzle that healthcare providers the world over are applying their time, energy and talent to solve. And technology is playing a critical role.
Out of all the many technologies now being applied to healthcare delivery, Augmented Reality (AR) is one of the most exciting. The ability to seamlessly blend direct sensory experience of the real world with all the power and potential of digital information technology is groundbreaking.
Put it this way. We all know how important digital resources have become, especially in the internet age, for looking up resources, help and advice as we work. But what if we didn’t have to break off from what we are doing to go to our laptop or tablet to find what we are looking for? Imagine if it was there immediately in our field of vision, or in our ears, as we were working?
This is what AR does.
It is this immediacy which is helping to establish AR as a breakthrough technology in healthcare. When time and resources are of the essence, AR allows medical knowledge, skills and expertise to be shared remotely in the moment, ensuring they get where they are needed most.
Here are six ways that AR is helping to transform the face of healthcare so we can better meet the challenges we face.
How do you meet the medical needs of seven billion people when there are not enough doctors to go around? Access to healthcare has traditionally been limited by the availability of a practitioner for each patient to see face-to-face – long queues in surgery waiting rooms and so on. The concept of telemedicine is removing these limitations by normalising the concept of medical consultations over distance, via smart devices and the internet.
AR has a key role to play in guaranteeing the quality of such consultations. This is especially true in our own field of surgery. Rather than simply being about diagnostics, the Proximie app uses AR to allow complete surgical procedures to be carried out over distance, with a specialist using the AR tools to guide and collaborate with a colleague in real time. The immediacy of this knowledge sharing means expertise can reach further than ever before, improving access to surgery.
The longer term solution of there not being enough medical professionals to go round is, of course, to train more. AR is already having a profound impact on medical training, with applications ranging from 3D visualizations to bring anatomical learning to life, to helping trainee nurses to master techniques for checking vital signs.
A key benefit of AR as a learning tool is that it creates a highly engaging, immersive educational experience which, by combining different sensory inputs, aids retention and how well complex concepts can be grasped. Used in surgical classes for medical students at Yale, faculty staff praised Proximie for the interactive, ‘hands-on’ educational experience it provided.
Speeding up the adoption of new technology
Innovative new technologies which promise great benefits to healthcare provision are continually arriving on the market at a rate of knots. However, one challenge the healthcare sector faces is that there is often a lag between a promising technology coming out of its development phase and achieving widespread adoption.
Reasons for this delay include things like the costs of purchasing new tech, the time it takes to raise awareness, and the need to integrate new systems, from installation to training staff.
Time lost to these delays is time wasted in providing a potentially better service to patients. AR can help. Instead of waiting for those all-to-rare opportunities to demonstrate new products face-to-face, apps like Proximie can help vendors reach potential customers all over the world any time they like, offering in-depth demonstrations. Following a purchase, AR can also be used to train staff remotely and to form the basis of long-term aftercare services.
AR is an extremely helpful tool in aiding medical professionals complete day-to-day tasks more accurately and efficiently, from aiding diagnosis to assisting with procedures. Putting aside the remote collaboration aspect of Proximie, the AR tools it provides are very useful in their own right for a surgeon in theatre. The app allows you to do things like project anatomical cross sections onto a patient, or show 3D visualisations of internal organs, so the surgeon gets a ‘see-through’ view as they plan a procedure.
Similar applications include AccuVein, an AR tool which helps practitioners locate veins for cannulation. Future uses of AR may include electronic medical records (EMR) being automatically displayed on a device as a doctor examines or consults with a patient, again highlighting the immediacy that AR can bring to medical practice.
Another intriguing trend we are seeing with the use of AR in healthcare is the development of applications that empower patients to play a more proactive role in their own care. The EyeDecide app, for example, is on the one hand another example of a 3D anatomical visualization tool, this time demonstrating the structure of the eyeball.
But beyond that, it also offers visual simulations of different eye conditions. Free on iPhone or iPad, users can self-diagnose by matching the simulation to any distortion they are experiencing in their own vision, and the app then even offers a list of suggested eye specialists in their area to consult further.
Finally, AR is even being used to treat patients in its own right, especially in relation to physiotherapy and physical rehabilitation. The basic principle behind the use of AR in this field is that digital demonstrations can be mapped directly onto the motions people perform as part of their therapy. By watching themselves in tandem with the demonstration, they can refine their movements accordingly.
This can be done either with an entirely computer-generated image, or with a therapist making the demonstration, as in the ‘Ghostman’ system developed by the University of Tasmania. The study conducted by researchers in Tasmania found that fine motor skills developed much faster using the AR tool compared to traditional face-to-face demonstration. An AR tool also offers the added benefit of allowing therapy to be delivered remotely.