As clever as technology is, the majority of people would probably still raise an eyebrow at the idea of surgeons carrying out complex, life saving procedures with their iPads. It sounds like science fiction. Yet that is exactly what is happening in hospitals across the globe, thanks to the Proximie platform and a little help from so-called AR technology.
Adding to Reality
AR stands for Augmented Reality. It might sound futuristic, but the principle behind AR is actually quite simple. Using a device with a camera function such as a tablet or mobile phone, AR quite literally ‘augments’ the transmission of the real, physical world on screen with additional, digitally generated content.
Some well known and popular uses of AR are the Pokemon Go game, which allows gamers to ‘see’ Pokemon characters in the real world, and Google Glasses, which show digital content on a transparent screen worn by the user as they go about their daily lives.
This blend of the real and the virtual is what distinguishes Augmented Reality from Virtual Reality (VR), which immerses users entirely in digitally-created worlds using special headsets.
Applications in Healthcare
While the commercial potential of AR and its VR cousin in the form of video games and lifestyle gadgets is enormous, Augmented Reality has already established itself at the heart of a burgeoning healthcare tech industry. Estimated to be worth £9.1 billion in the UK alone by 2018, healthcare tech development is at the cutting edge of pushing the boundaries of digital technology itself, as it tackles some of the critical issues facing healthcare delivery in the 21st Century.
In its 2016 report Delivering the Benefits of Digital Healthcare, The Nuffield Foundation makes a wwide-rangingseries of recommendations for how digital technology can drive improvements in public health. AR’s flexibility makes it capable of fulfilling roles in most of the areas outlined, from helping patients describe symptoms and stick to medical plans, to making medical records instantly accessible to practitioners simply by ‘scanning’ the patient.
In surgical applications, Proximie’s AR platform fulfills three of the Nuffield Foundation’s criteria.
AR can combine practical experience with theoretical learning in a fully interactive form of instruction. Medical students will be able to observe or take part in surgical procedures using Smart devices or a wearable like Google Glasses, with what they watch augmented by step-by-step narration, explanation, diagrams and images from different angles. Students can ask their own questions or conduct relevant searches, and save recordings for later reference.
It takes the pressure off a lead surgeon having to ‘talk and show’ in the operating theatre attended by students – in fact, the instructor does not even have to be in the room at all. This opens up greater opportunities for students to observe and learn about specialist procedures pioneered by perhaps a handful of surgeons globally. With information uploaded onto the internet previously and a camera in theatre, students can watch and learn via videolink from anywhere in the world.
AR extends beyond students. The concept of professional-to-professional telehealth is about using technology to remove physical barriers to practitioners sharing best practice, not just region to region, but globally. As with the education example, with a camera, a smart device and an internet connection, surgeons can learn about latest techniques and apply them as need arises in their patients, even if those techniques have been developed on the opposite side of the globe.
AR is being used to share expertise with parts of the globe facing critical need but where medical care is under resourced and surgical knowledge underdeveloped.
Underpinning both the educational possibilities and the ability to spread surgical knowledge globally is the fact that AR is fundamentally a mobile, remote tool. By opening up enhanced lines of communication, AR has created the opportunity for ‘remote surgery’, with specialists guiding surgical teams through advanced procedures live in the theatre from another city, country or continent. Specialists on call are immediately available. AR is already being used to deliver surgery in war zones such as Gaza, and increase access to procedures like cleft lip and palate surgery in countries like Peru.