Until a few years ago, AR and VR were futuristic technologies seen mostly in science fiction movies. Then they became a staple in the gaming and entertainment industry. Today, however, AR and VR are on the road to becoming mainstream technologies that promise to benefit every industry that employs them. Healthcare is one such segment that is witnessing the rise of VR and AR adoption. Dr. Ajit Sachdeva, Director of Education with the American College of Surgeons says, “We are seeing more and more of this (VR) incorporated faster than ever before…VR has reached a tipping point in medicine.” The use of VR in medicine is not a new phenomenon. Medical researchers have been trying to use VR since the 1990’s to create 3D models of patients’ internal organs. With the advances in computing power, today it has become much easier to create these simulated images.

Giving the Operating Room the technology edge

Advanced technology has already found its place in the operating room. Now AR and VR technology is making the OT even more advanced. Some complicated operations present unique challenges which can only be resolved with meticulous planning. VR, for example, played an important role in the unusually complicated and potentially dangerous surgery for the separation of conjoined twins at The Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. The surgical team used high-level visualization by creating an elaborate virtual model of the twins’ bodies to gain insight into potential pitfalls as they would encounter during the surgery. Using 3D glasses, they could, “basically walk through the structure, peeling apart parts so you can look at exactly what you want to,” said Dr. Anthony Azakie, one of the surgeons who separated the twins. This high-level visualization also limited the number of surprises that they could encounter during the surgery.

Martin J. Citardi, chair of the department of otorhinolaryngology, head and neck surgery at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center says, “[AR], which uses 3D mapping and imagery, enhances our understanding of complex anatomy so surgical procedures are more precise…The addition of [AR] to a surgical navigation serves as a GPS-like system and offers patients the benefits of minimally invasive surgery with lower risks and better outcomes.

St. Mary’s Hospital in London used Microsoft’s HoloLens AR technology to overlay CT scan images onto a patient’s leg during a reconstructive surgery and could see the leg and inside it, the bones, the tissues, the blood vessels and could exactly identify where their targets lay.

Radiology gets a boost

Radiology has definitely got the technology boost and has become more insightful over the years. Technologies such as AR and VR are adding further intelligence to this important department in hospitals. A study released by Stanford University focusing on treating splenic artery aneurysms discovered that with AR and VR, radiologists gained more confidence in diagnosing such issues. Dr. Zlatko Devcic, a fellow of interventional radiology at Stanford University School of Medicine and an author of the study said, “This new platform allows you to view a patient’s arterial anatomy in a three-dimensional image, as if it is right in front of you, which may help interventional radiologists more quickly and thoroughly plan for the equipment and tools they’ll need for a successful outcome.

In oncology, medical imaging becomes critical in detection, diagnosis as well as monitoring. AR and VR can be used in serial imaging to determine how tumors evolve, change the size and compare in its overall size, shapes, and margins. With AR and VR, radiologists can also better inform oncologists and surgeons of the tumor location and also give them vital information of the tumors’ anatomy.

Increase training outcomes

AR and VR become especially useful technologies to improve training outcomes for surgeons. Surgeons prepare by mostly practicing on cadavers or by observing other experienced surgeons in action. Using the AR and VR technologies, surgeons can use realistic simulations to prepare for the real operation. Virtual Reality can be effectively used to see and practice complicated operations virtually first and see how things will progress in the real-world scenario. William Sheahan, director of the MedStar Simulation Training & Education Lab (MedStar SiTEL) in Washington, D.C says, “Our research shows that virtual simulation is as good as or better than traditional training methods.

The immersive experience that AR and VR give a huge time and cost benefit. Instead of using pictures or models as in the past, today, AR and VR can be used to create a virtual anatomy. The students can see detailed structures of the human anatomy and improve learning outcomes.

Improving patient experience

AR and VR technologies are greatly beneficial to improve the patient experience in hospitals. For example, these technologies can reduce the pursuit of a vein and ensure that a vein can be reached in one go using a simple handheld scanner making IV administering simpler.

Stanford University students are using VR headsets to see inside an infant’s beating heart to explore congenital heart defects and observe how the defect impacts the normal function of the heart. David M. Axelrod, MD, clinical assistant professor of pediatric cardiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, says “The heart is a complicated three-dimensional organ, and it’s really hard to describe what’s going on inside of it — especially when something is going wrong . . . Virtual reality eliminates a lot of that complexity by letting people go inside the heart and see what’s happening themselves — it’s worth way more than a thousand words.

In Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital pediatric cardiologists are using interactive visualizations using AR and VR technologies to help parents understand their children’s heart conditions.

AR and VR are also being used for patient recovery and wellness to evaluate their responses. The analytics generated by these applications are then used to further customize care. These technologies are proving to be helpful in pain management using games and 360-degree interactive guides. Research conducted by Dr. Brennan M. Spiegel and his team at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center showed that physiologic immersion caused by VR and AR worked better in controlling pain when compared to controlled distraction.

Doctors in Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool are using AR and VR applications to entertain, educate, and distract young hospitalized children. Los Angeles Children’s Hospital is employing VR headsets to reduce anxiety and procedural pain amongst children during routine blood draws.

VR and AR are being used to treat the phantom limb syndrome. Phantom pain is not responsive to traditional painkillers. Using this technology, the amputees can see their virtual limbs appear on a screen. Using the VR/AR simulation the patient can control the version of their missing limb, moving it and experiencing it as if it were still there. This virtual mirror therapy helps in controlling the phantom pain.

VR and AR applications are slowly but surely gaining a strong foothold in the healthcare landscape. We have only just scratched the surface of what these technologies can offer to improve healthcare outcomes as well as impact patient experience positively.