AR in Healthcare: Improving Clinical Practice with Augmented Reality

Over the past century, clinical practice has undergone an almost unthinkable transformation. Just over 150 years ago, doctors didn’t even know they could transmit germs on their hands.

On maternity wards of the past, doctors would move from one female patient to the next, examining each without washing their hands in between, much less wearing gloves.

Needless to say, childbirth death went rampant.

So to think we can now use augmented reality during reconstructive surgery to locate bone fractures and blood vessels is quite an astonishing advancement.

Check out what else augmented reality makes possible in healthcare.

doctors viewing an augmented reality heart
AR in Healthcare: Improving Clinical Practice with Augmented Reality

Fast Forward to the Twenty-First Century

The potential of AR is visible across industries. From education to manufacturing to automotive, augmented reality fills gaps in workflows, offering tangible opportunities for improvement.

For example, AR can be used to eliminate inefficiencies in manufacturing caused by engineers having to check paper instructions.

Whereas insignificant at first glance, the constant loss of focus and time necessary to refer to the instruction amounts to considerable losses over time.

To give it a more personal context — You know the feeling when you have to focus on the paper instruction for your shiny new IKEA bookshelf and hold the darn thing together with your other two hands?

Well, quality assurance in the automotive industry is like the IKEA instruction times 1,782.4.

For extremely precise and complex tasks, the help of computers is indeed invaluable. And the better the augmented reality technology gets, the more advanced its use cases in clinical practice.

In fact, the healthcare industry is projected to add a $47.9 billion boost to the global economy by 2022.

The role of AR/VR in the global economy
The role of AR/VR in the global economy. Source: PwC

The current clinical practice is evolving at lightspeed, but the sector still has multiple areas in need of solutions that can benefit from technology.

Here are just some examples of AR in healthcare.

<quote>AR is an entirely new concept to you? Read our AR guide to learn the basics of augmented reality.<quote>

AR in Reconstructive Surgery

Reconstructive surgery calls for a high degree of precision to yield expected results and improve a patient's recovery time.

Augmented reality goggles can be used to feed information from CT scans and MRI images directly into a surgeon’s field of vision. This way, the surgeon knows where blood vessels and bone fractures are and can increase the precision of the incision during reconstructive surgery.

How Does It Work?

First, surgeons perform diagnostic imaging on the patient. Then, the data from CT scans, MRI, and X-rays is digitized and transformed into a 3D model, which shows the location of the soft tissues, blood vessels, and bones.

This rendering is then fed into the AR device. During the surgery, the 3D rendering is mapped on a patient’s body, providing the surgeon with critical information.

CTA images of a leg rendered into an AR model
CTA images are rendered into an AR model. Source: European Radiology Experimental

Thanks to this approach, surgeons don’t have to look back and forth between the patient and the images, or rely on audible Doppler ultrasound, which is currently the prevalent method during reconstructive surgeries.

The technology is far from maturing, with many challenges waiting in line before mainstream adoption is possible.

For example, transforming information from CT scans and MRI into 3D models is time consuming — the ER won’t benefit from AR, at least for now.

Motor Rehabilitation with Augmented Reality

When a stroke patient is released home, there’s still a long period of recovery awaiting, with many occupational exercises necessary to practice daily to improve limb mobility.

Without enough motivation and engagement, post-stroke patients recovering at home often exercise less than they would at specialist rehabilitation facilities or the hospital.

The greatest challenge for post-stroke recovery patients is regular home-based therapy.

And here’s where augmented reality steps in to help.

AR, along with VR and gamification, is successfully used in the rehabilitation of post-stroke patients, specifically for lower and upper limb motor function loss or deficit.

Augmented reality games have shown promising results in improving patient motivation and engagement to exercise at home.

Augmented reality mobility game for post-stroke recovery
Augmented reality mobility game for post-stroke recovery. Source: JMIR Publications

Augmented reality can also be used for gait analysis to help clinicians gain a better understanding of joint mobility in patients. AR-assisted gait analysis can help physicians introduce gait impairment interventions early and effectively.

Doctor-Patient Communication

Exploring AR-Based Hospital Navigation

Who hasn’t gotten lost in a hospital when looking for a specific room? I know it has happened to me more than once.

With augmented reality navigation apps, patients can easily orient themselves inside a hospital facility and swiftly reach the location they want.

AR navigation apps can be used by both patients and visitors to help them calculate the shortest route to a desired location (e.g., for a procedure or to a patient’s room).

A hospital AR navigation system would also be convenient for entry-level staff to familiarize themselves quickly with the building.

Conveying Complex Information to Patients Through AR

From a patient’s perspective, understanding how surgical procedures are performed or what exactly inside the body is causing an ailment is daunting and difficult.

Doctors can use augmented reality apps to better communicate with patients through immersive visualizations.

Insight Heart is a mixed reality app for Magic Leap 1 for visualizing various cardiovascular diseases
Insight Heart is a mixed reality app for Magic Leap 1 for visualizing various cardiovascular diseases. Source: Magic Leap

<quote>Learn the difference between augmented reality and mixed reality.<quote>

In this way, AR could help doctors illustrate the procedure, show how the ailment is affecting body function, and explain how the procedure would help fix the ailment.

With customizable simulations prepared for various surgical procedures — both common and risky — doctors could improve communication with patients of all ages and levels of technical and medical literacy.

Streamlining Patient Information Retrieval

AR glasses or interactive AR charts offer doctors detailed patient information at a glance.

No need to thumb through patient records — upon recognizing a visual cue, e.g., when scanning the patient’s wristband, an AR solution would show the doctor all patient information, including medication, lab results, and vitals.

Improving patient information retrieval allows for more meaningful patient-doctor relationships and increases efficiency during rounds.

Phobia Treatment with AR

Phobia-related disorders affect roughly 20% of Americans, with 9.1% of the adult American population suffering from specific phobias (e.g., fear of heights, animals, small spaces).

One of the more effective ways to treat phobias and anxiety is through exposure therapy, meaning showing the patient the anxiety-inducing stimulus.

Although more studies need to be performed to confirm the efficacy of Augmented Reality Exposure Therapy for various phobias, initial results from a few studies show promising results.

For example, during a claustrophobia study with virtual reality and augmented reality, the doctors were successful at inducing patient anxiety with the assistance of technology.

The study also revealed that “the AR environment produced a stronger experience for the participants and caused statistically significant physiological reactions than those caused by the VR environment.”

A hands-on experience with an augmented reality spider. Source: The University of Texas at Austin

Augmented reality apps could support psychotherapy for phobias by inducing anxiety in the patient in a safe and controlled environment. A therapist present during the exposure therapy would guide the patient through the experience, and help alter the response to the stimulus.

Here’s one of the AR app examples for exposure therapy:


Advancing Clinical Practice with Augmented Reality

There’s still lots of research, refinement, and mainstream adoption needed for augmented reality to enhance clinical practice in healthcare systems across the world.

As the technology matures and overcomes technical and implementation hurdles, augmented reality will most likely become a go-to tool for treating a variety of ailments. Doctors will use AR solutions to improve patient outcomes and the quality of surgeries.

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