AR in healthcare: from medical training to patient education

20.03.2018
8 min.
title

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

Our today is filled with amazing technologies designed to make life easier, but only a few of them still look like magic to us. Merging the world as we see it with digital information, augmented reality or AR is one of these technologies.

Until recently, AR was used mostly for entertainment. We are talking sparkly filters, flower crowns, and puppy masks all over social media. However, this technology can do much more.

Today, AR paves its way into the kin of healthcare software with the promise to reimagine medical staff training and education along with patient diagnosing and treating. The demand for augmented reality in healthcare is increasing, according to the recent Grand View Research report. It promises 29.1% CAGR growth for the global market for VR & AR in healthcare with $5.1 billion by 2025.

In this article, we look at multiple approaches to augmented reality development in medicine, defining how the technology can support health specialists in their training and work as well as advance the care delivery quality.

The AR concept in a heartbeat

Augmented reality enhances the physical world with digital information, such as text, sound, video, or graphics data. This information can either add details to the environment or mask it up, depending on the type and purpose of data.

Smartphones, tablets, and wearables, including smart glasses and headsets, are the devices currently supporting AR technology. In the future, we expect contact lenses to join the list.

AR for reshaping medical training and education

While medical students get deep into the theory of human anatomy, pathology, and invasive procedures, they should also understand the health issues in the real world and how to address them. AR introduces interactivity into medical training and complements theoretic knowledge with case-based simulations.

AR apps can overlay anatomical information on a human skeleton or a dummy, allowing students to memorize the bones’ names, understand different types of trauma, and view body systems in action.

Anatomical Information Overlay
Image source: https://medium.com/@CAEHealthcare/augmented-reality-has-the-potential-to-revolutionize-medicine-and-healthcare-training-22aef68260b3

Besides, AR can introduce gamification into imaginary care cycles to help practitioners in their training. Medical students will be able to view various clinical cases and then apply different diagnostic and treatment techniques, replaying any case as many times as they need. Such apps can be installed on tablets, smartphones, or smart glasses, overlaying patient cases on any surfaces, including campus walls.

Certainly, experienced health specialists can benefit from additional AR training too, polishing their skills and refreshing knowledge.

Augmented reality across the care cycle

Speaking of the care continuum, augmented reality in medicine can introduce paperless environments into ADT processes, facilitate procedures, optimize surgeries, and support patients after discharge. With each bit of care delivery being enhanced with AR, providers can streamline workflows, making their staff more efficient and less loaded with tedious routines.

ADT through the looking glass

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) claims that the 65-and-over population in the U.S. will reach whopping 88 million by 2050. The aging population increases the burden on the healthcare system with more Medicare and Medicaid patients in need for recurrent care and support from hospitals, home care agencies, and assisted living facilities.

To handle increasing workload in hospitals, managers should first optimize basic procedures, such as admission, discharge, and transfer (ADT) systems. Nursing staff should be able to manage patient records, prepare wards, keep in touch with treatment plans, verify dosing information, and request medical equipment without heading to desktop EHRs every time and filling in paper forms.

AR apps for ADT designed to use smart glasses are perfect for this task. They allow nurses to keep both hands free while making arrangements or interacting with a patient. In particular, these apps can:

  • Document initial patient information during the admission process without wasting time on using a tablet or writing notes on paper. Nurses can assign a ward or a bed, fill in the admission questionnaire, record patient vitals, check the insurance information, and contact fellow specialists.
  • Ensure care quality for patient stay via automated features. AR-based ADT apps can track care time and location, monitor tasks completion and notify about treatment plan changes. Nurses can also double-check prescriptions and avoid improper dosing by sending requests to physicians.
  • Facilitate discharge and transfer processes with pre-set checklists that guide nurses at every step. They don’t need to stroll around the facility searching for responsible specialists to sign forms, book medical equipment or compose a discharge report. Everything can be done within the app.

Introducing AR into ADT will make related workflows as reliable as a Swiss watch, with all processes in one place and under control.

Error-proof blood tests

Drawing blood from a patient is the basic way to find out what’s up with their body, so this procedure should probably be perfected by now. But not all veins are created the same, so finding the one at the first attempt can be challenging. AR provides a way to reduce the number of missed veins, with such products as AccuVein at the forefront.

AccuVein
Image source: http://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/16/making-blood-draws-easier-friendlier-needle-296317.html

AccuVein and other vein finders are handheld scanners that use noninvasive infrared technology to draw a map of the vein system on a patient’s skin in real time. When the skin is scanned, the musculature appears red and the veins are represented as dark lines. Health specialists can control the procedure with the vein finder, avoiding valves or bifurcations and successfully drawing blood at the first attempt.

AR-guided surgeries

When it comes to more serious invasive procedures, such as surgeries, the stakes are high. Surgeons have to watch over the patient’s vital statistics while making cuts and stitches. When performing microsurgeries, they work via the microscope. In case of minimally invasive surgery, the surgeon navigates the process via endoscopic camera. While it’s challenging to keep an equal focus on all information sources, surgeons have to do it to keep patients safe during the procedure and after it.

AR can significantly improve the surgeon’s focus and reduce the need to split attention between various monitors with the help of smart glasses. All critical patient information and surgical site image is kept right before the surgeon’s eyes, assuring his or her concentration on the patient.

One of the advanced examples is the Xvision system by Augmedics. Designed with the focus on spine surgeries, Xvision creates 2D and 3D visualizations of the patient’s anatomy in axial and sagittal planes, tracks instruments and implants, and supports navigation for both open and minimally invasive procedures. Surgeons can find the safest path into the spine regions even when the spine is damaged or deformed.

3d Surgery
Image source: https://www.orthoworld.com/index.php/publications/orthoflash/augmedics-secures-8-3-million-funding-for-augmented-reality-surgi

Besides, this AR system uses sensors that collect surgical data and power machine learning to create alert and suggestions, making the procedure even more controllable. Surgeons can achieve higher levels of precision in spine surgery, reducing the risk of complications and succeeding even in complex cases of cervical pathologies, spinal traumas, skeletal deformities and more.

Post-discharge support

After a patient leaves the hospital, their rehabilitation period isn’t over yet. To recover from an invasive procedure or acute condition successfully, patients need to comply with a post-discharge treatment plan, exercise regimen, and nutritional outline. Some patients may struggle with a handful of changes to their daily life and need help to overcome them.

Augmented reality in healthcare can make the post-discharge routine more comprehensive and even entertaining.

First, AR allows for interactive patient education in disease prevention and treatment. Patients often feel left out when they don’t quite understand their condition, so they can’t fully engage with the following therapy.

Nurses or physicians can use AR apps on smartphones and tablets to demonstrate physiological processes to the patient, family members, and caregivers, explaining what is happening within the body and how it can be treated. With all parties being informed and involved, they can contribute to the patient’s recovery in the best possible way.

Second, augmented reality apps on smart glasses can engage patients into taking care of their health after discharge. Becoming their personal digital assistants, AR apps can notify patients of the need to take particular medications, encourage them to follow nutritional guidelines, remind about the need to exercise and offer fun ways to get more active, like reaching to pat a kitten or collect a coin.

Augmented future of healthcare becomes reality

While not reaching each and every corner of care delivery yet, augmented reality in medicine is a technology worth investment. It is already used to make healthcare safer and more precise.

AR helps medical students gain a better understanding of human anatomy, provides guidance for drawing blood, and helps health professionals navigate through complex spinal surgeries. We also anticipate that the next years will bring in paperless environments across clinical and administrative processes, enable full-cycle post-discharge support and become the standard surgery assistance tool to reduce the number of preventable medical errors and complications.