VR and AR aren’t widespread yet, but they could touch everything from medical training to surgery.
While they have not hit the mainstream yet, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are clearly not just for gaming anymore. They are serious business and hold real promise for the future of medicine.
Known collectively as XR, this technological movement in immersive computing is quietly gaining momentum and could transform healthcare in ways many never thought possible. According to an Accenture report, more than one-third of healthcare organizations have already adopted extended reality (XR) across one or more business units. Already, these technologies are impacting key areas of patient care in dozens of innovative applications, from medical and skill-based training to the assisted delivery of high-precision robotic surgery and much more.
VR provides a fully simulated experience, providing users with total immersion that has been created based on reality. There are no “real” elements at play in VR — the entire environment has been generated to mimic real-life settings and scenarios.
AR, on the other hand, is just what its name suggests: It takes a real situation or environment and complements or enhances it, using an overlay of additional digital information in multimedia formats such as video, sound, 3D models or text, to enhance the user experience.
Working independently or in tandem, AR and VR have shown great promise in various medical applications. Early adopters and nimble startups are demonstrating the incredible potential XR can have on the delivery of patient care.
Unlike industries looking to engage with customers in new ways, such as retail and tourism, the use of XR in healthcare could bring meaningful change. It is about improving the quality, delivery and precision of medicine through simulated, experiential discovery.
Rahul Patel, EVP & GM, Healthcare & Life Sciences, Persistent Systems
VR is being used in innovative ways to deliver new treatment options in a variety of clinical areas. Stroke patients who need rehabilitation can re-learn and practice real-life daily activities in a simulated setting with the assistance of their healthcare teams while in the hospital.
Immersive technologies can also be used to help those suffering from phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder or addiction by offering a simulated experience to help them face difficult situations in a safe, controlled environment.
Children and adults exposed to XR immersive experiences and games during treatments or procedures have proven to experience less anxiety and need less pain medication.
Hospital patients and visitors are using AR smartphone apps to help find their way to and from destinations within the hospital, while also accessing valuable and relevant information at their fingertips in real time.
When surgeons need access to information such as detailed anatomical modeling or patient vital signs during a procedure, they no longer need to switch their focus from the patient to a monitor across the room. Using smart glasses and AR, providers can seamlessly access information in real time, allowing them to focus on the important task at hand without distraction. Similarly, AR-guided tools can, for example, take the guesswork out of finding a vein for blood samples, leading to less pain, greater efficiency and, of course, a better patient experience.
AR can enhance a surgeon’s field of view during complex procedures by overlaying an enlarged 3D version of an organ. Similarly, several specialties have studied the use of AR for surgery, with promising results for preoperative planning and training. Ahead of surgery, the ability to interact with anatomical modeling for planning purposes allows surgeons to have greater precision, accuracy and outcomes when they enter the real-world operating room. And orthopedic surgeons and nurses are using VR to train and refine their techniques — through, for example, Johnson & Johnson’s VR Training Program.
XR holds great promise in helping providers better explain conditions and treatments using simulation and immersive technology to simplify complex concepts. Installed on smartphones, AR apps can help educate patients on their conditions and make clinical recommendations in real time. In some cases, smart glasses can serve as digital health assistants, reminding patients to take medications, attend scheduled appointments, exercise or eat a certain diet — all based on their unique health history.
There’s no doubt that XR will soon have a significant impact in the world of medical education, skills development and training. Medical schools, universities and large health systems are employing VR to allow students to practice techniques and procedures in a hands-on environment with no risk — plus the benefit of real-time feedback. Imagine the quality of care improvements that we can ultimately expect in a world where a “brand-new” surgeon has already completed dozens of complex cases virtually — a scenario that might not occur for months or even years but holds great promise nevertheless.
Like most disruptive technologies, these things take time. The industry players and consumers alike must be ready to leap at innovative change. When it comes to XR adoption, it is safe to say that we are headed in the right direction. Leading companies, such as Microsoft, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Apple, Oculus/Facebook, Intel, Amazon and others are already investing heavily and innovating in XR technology, and many academic centers and health systems are exploring the future of this technology and what it will mean for healthcare.
While barriers to adoption exist, such as high cost and fragmented technology/interoperability, the digital transformation we have seen in healthcare over the past decade is very encouraging. When people’s lives are at stake, a technology that solves real problems will always win — and XR has shown great promise in doing just that.
Rahul Patel, executive vice president and general manager, Healthcare and Life Sciences, Persistent Systems, is responsible for driving digital transformation across the company’s diverse client base of healthcare providers and institutions, to improve clinical care, patient engagement and staff productivity.
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