Back in 2016, the Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research unit forecast that the AR and VR in healthcare is the second biggest application area by addressable market size. Three years later, the potential of AR/VR applications in healthcare is still growing. The presence of numerous AR/VR technology vendors at the world’s largest health informatics conference, HIMSS, particularly indicates the recognition of these needs as well as the growing opportunities in the area. The technology has the potential to transform radiology, interventional cardiology, oncology, orthopaedics and more.
How do we train so many of them so quickly?
One of the biggest application fields, however, is clinical training. Faster learning is critical especially in countries with vast populations like China and India, which, combined, will need 6 million new physicians by 2020, according to Fortune. In ageing population markets, the gap is also increasing quickly. The U.S. alone will need an additional 20,000 surgeons to address the growing problems of the elderly.
What if more physicians in training had access to technologies such as AR? Gaining the needed experience and qualifications for healthcare specialists will speed up significantly which is one possible solution to the increasing demand.
Currently, main areas of utilisation of augmented and virtual reality technologies include pre-surgical planning, surgical or interventional periprocedural guidance and physician training. More specifically, radiology is a field where AR can be applied to speed up the buildup of physicians’ expertise by allowing them to examine a bigger variety of cases and variations in human anatomy. In the UK, the shortage of senior radiologists has been reported to seriously impact medical care and particularly cancer care, and such shortages are not exclusive to the UK.
Where are we now?
A multitude of startups and established companies have already revealed products in development, some being commercialized and several already FDA-cleared for clinical use.
Radiology & Interventional Radiology
FDA-cleared in 2018, NovaRad’s OpenSight AR system allows users to scroll through MRI and CT image slices via hand gestures in order to aid pre-operative surgical planning. The platform renders 2D, 3D and 4D images and overlays them directly onto the patient’s body allowing clinical teams to see “inside” the patient and surrounding at the same time. To aid training of less experienced residents, OpenSight AR allows for multiple headsets to be shared among the trainees and the trained surgeons.
Also FDA-approved, California-based EchoPixel’s True 3D solution is already being utilized across several medical institutions in the U.S. including Stanford Hospital and Cleveland Clinic. The company’s interactive mixed reality software platform provides a holographic experience allowing clinical teams to visualize and interact with patient-specific anatomy in a 3D space instead of trying to visualize the patient’s anatomy combining 2D images in their minds.
In the field of interventional radiology, guiding needles and catheters to the targeted area is a challenge where AR can help significantly. Using holographic images, the radiologist can use guidance and rely on enhanced precision in a biopsy needle tumour insertion procedure. Another use case for AR is the superimposition of 3D images directly on the patient’s body which decreases the needs for fluoroscopy procedures.
Announced and currently under development, mixed-reality platform by Philips Healthcare and Microsoft is planned to aid interventional cath lab procedures. Based on Philips’ Azurion angiography platform and Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 holographic computing platform, the system is designed for applications in minimally invasive image-guided therapies. The 3D holographic environment can be controlled by the physician and allows for visualizing the real world superimposed with live data.
Most recently, a Cleveland Clinic research team has incorporated HoloLens into liver cancer treatment as a technology for improving the accuracy and effectiveness of a minimally-invasive thermal therapy to destroy liver tumours.
General Practice & Routine Procedures
Startup AccuVein is using AR technology to improve the experience of both patients and nurses during routine procedures. Many times nurses miss the patients’ veins when trying to collect a blood sample, especially in patients with less visible vein anatomy. The company applies AR via a handheld scanner that projects over skin to indicate with precision where veins are located in the patients’ bodies.
The road ahead
The potential of AR comes, of course, with adoption challenges and the price is not the only barrier.
It is well known that healthcare providers are not very keen on implementing new complex technologies. That’s why AR vendors must be able to clearly demonstrate to potential users how the technology works and its advantages to existing and familiar solutions. Moreover, companies must be capable of reassuring potential users that their technologies do exactly what they claim to do in order not to be perceived as just another overwhelming gimmick.
Currently, adoption of the AR/VR technology is still in its infancy. However, given the ever-increasing clinical needs globally, healthcare executives must be open to the potential of the new technology. What’s more, they should act toward removing adoption barriers. This could potentially include testing innovative AR solutions offered by providers or establishing partnerships with growing companies in the area. Ultimately, AR has the potential to not only improve clinical outcomes but also help satisfy the rising global demand for trained physicians and increase the quality of life, in general.