The Future of Augmented Reality in Healthcare

Anton TrukhanovBlog

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Among the seemingly innumerable areas in which Virtual and Augmented Reality can be used, healthcare has emerged as one of the most interesting ones. There are already some exciting implications, and as these technologies continue to improve, we’re likely to see numerous fascinating, beneficial, and even life-saving applications. Here we’ll look specifically at AR, and some of what the future holds for its use in healthcare.

New Teaching Methods

VR’s use in e-Learning is something that’s become a relatively popular topic of discussion, and which we’ve covered before. However, AR can be applied in education as well, perhaps particularly where healthcare is concerned. Students sitting in classrooms, for example, could soon be asked to turn to AR devices to load diagrams and models into virtual space in front of them. Those diagrams and models could cover a range of subjects, and effectively serve as more interactive versions of what past students might have only looked at in textbooks.

There will be more targeted and specific applications in this space as well. For example, think of surgical students, or even licensed surgeons preparing for new or complex procedures. Practicing in Augmented Reality might allow for unprecedented visibility; the surgeon could rotate a virtual subject to see different angles, zoom in on exact replicas of body parts to better understand the planned procedure, and so on. Following these experiences, students and surgeons will be more thoroughly prepared when it’s time for the real thing.
In some cases, surgeons can already wear AR during surgery as well. This is a fairly astonishing development, but is one of the more interesting existing practices we know of today. Essentially, an AR program can allow a doctor to have x-ray vision of a patient; the doctor can look at the part of the body on which he or she is operating and see inside of it in a way that guides incisions and subsequent actions.

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Demonstrating New Devices & Methods

It’s not an aspect of the healthcare industry that is visible to most of us, but new devices and treatment methods typically have to be demonstrated before they can be made available. This can mean that the developer of a given treatment is demonstrating said treatment to a healthcare provider; it could also occur when a new method needs to be taught to pharmacists. Whatever the case, it can be hard for the people and entities involved to get the facetime they need to conduct these demonstrations efficiently. AR could solve this problem in many cases, essentially by broadcasting demonstrations. Those on the receiving end could see the demonstrations before their eyes through AR and thus learn to handle the devices or methods at hand.

Creating New Devices

AR’s use in production shouldn’t be overlooked either. In fact, this may be the single most important category of the AR-in-healthcare discussion, because it involves everything from the tiny electronics within healthcare devices, to prosthetic limbs being fitted to patients.

To expand on those examples, we’ll start with the small. Today’s healthcare industry is more connected than ever before, largely thanks to millions and millions of connected devices — from hospital equipment, to computer systems, to wearables and implants in patients. All of these devices require highly sophisticated electronic mechanisms to work properly, and specifically well-design printed circuit boards. Right now, PCB design services consist primarily of software programs that can handle projects from start to finish. They get the job done quickly, but AR has the potential to further simplify these design services. Basically, we could soon see PCB designers working in Augmented (or Virtual) reality to make hands-on changes to digital designs and thus fine-tune schematics for production. This process could work to the benefit of innumerable healthcare devices.

As for the other example we mentioned regarding prosthetic limbs, the impact might be somewhat more direct. Prosthetics may look at first glance primarily like hunks of solid material. But they’re actually immensely complex designs that need to be strong, balanced, and capable; increasingly, they may also include some “smart” functions. Getting all of this right is likely to become easier with the help of AR, which could help to overlay design concepts, track changes, and so on for the engineers.

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Mental Health Management

Far too often, we forget to consider mental health when discussing the healthcare industry. In this case though, it’s actually one of the most interesting areas to talk about, and the one in which some of the most exciting AR applications may ultimately be deployed.

Already, there are examples of AR and VR being used to reduce anxiety in patients. Experiences can vary, but the idea is essentially that these technologies can be used to present those suffering from anxiety with images arranged in strategic patterns (or alongside strategic tasks), resulting in a calming effect. There are also instances of Mixed Reality being used to treat specific phobias through what is essentially a less stressful type of exposure therapy. Patients can virtually confront things that trigger their phobias and be guided to cope with them.

It’s likely that these examples are only scratching the surface of how Augmented Reality can ultimately impact the healthcare industry. We may well see the technology used in additional product development, a broader range of teaching methods, and disease spread and treatment simulations, as well as in various areas we can’t fully predict just yet. Nonetheless, it is already clear that AR in healthcare is going to be a very big deal.