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In healthcare, immersive technology is more than just hype
personRich McEachran eventMay 8, 2019

In healthcare, immersive technology is more than just hype

By 2025, AR and VR in healthcare will be a market worth around $5.1bn globally. We take a look at the impact immersive tech is already having on both patients and medical professionals.

If you’re having a hip resurfaced or a damaged knee replaced with an artificial joint, you’re going to want the operation to be a success – any issues and it could restrict your mobility. So you put your trust in the hands of skilled surgeons.

Doctors and surgeons will train for hours, days and months in classrooms and on cadavers, but the problem is that a single cadaver can cost up to £10,000. Training in virtual reality (VR), however, could cost significantly less than a dead human body.

London-based startup FundamentalVR has built a VR surgery simulator, ideal for surgical procedures such as posterior hip replacement and total knee arthroplasty. The Surgical Haptic Intelligence Engine uses haptics – the technology of touch – to mimic the real life sensations of using surgical tools and dealing with tissue and bone.

The main benefit of training in VR is that medical students are able to perform a procedure over and over again, in a safe environment. There are also only so many times a cadaver can be frozen and defrosted before it needs to be disposed of and replaced.

At the end of 2018, FundamentalVR announced a partnership with the leading academic medical centre in the US, Mayo Clinics, to create new simulation content to improve medical training.

This is just one example of how VR and its sister technology augmented reality (AR) are transforming healthcare for both medical professionals and patients – a market that is set to be worth $5.1bn (£3.89bn) globally by 2025. Here are some others.

Source: FundamentalVR

Understanding a patient’s anatomy

Surgeons at Queen Mary's Hospital have previously used HoloLens to prepare for operations on broken legs and fractured fibulas and to improve the outcome of reconstructive surgery for patients. The device uses CT scans and overlays a 3D digital model of a patient’s anatomy onto their body.

A problem surgeons often face is where to make an incision. If they cut in the wrong place, even by just a few millimetres, then they could end up causing damage to sensitive structures. By using the HoloLens, they can see exactly where they need to make the decision, reducing the risk of corrective surgery and the time wounds take to heal. The technique is also useful for moving blood vessels from one part of the body to another.

Guiding doctors in a three-dimensional space

Using smart glasses in the operating room is nothing new. In 2014, doctors at Barts Health NHS Trust used Google Glass to livestream the removal of a cancerous tumour to around 13,000 medical students. The following year, it was reported that doctors in Poland had used Google Glass to help unblock an artery and, in doing so, save a 49-year-old man’s life.

To operate on a clogged coronary artery, a stent is inserted with a balloon catheter that is then inflated. This holds the stent in place and keeps the artery open during the procedure. An imaging technique (computed tomography angiography or CTA) that combines CT scans with angiography, a dye that helps to visualise the veins, is used by cardiologists to guide them through an operation.

These CTA images are usually displayed on a screen within the operating theatre, but researchers at the Institute of Cardiology in Warsaw realised that they could display them as a 3D reconstruction of the heart in the cardiologists’ field of vision. This can help them guide the wire through the artery to the blocked area.

One benefit of Google Glass is that voice activation allows the wearer to make commands, such as to zoom in and zoom out on a particular area of an image. In this case, it means cardiologists can work with more autonomy and don’t need to look up from the operating table to view the images on a screen.

Reassuring brain surgery patients

The thought of a doctor peeling back a scalp and then drilling a hole in a skull is stomach-churning. In 2017, VR firm, Surgical Theater, and researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine came together to use immersive technology to reassure patients on their impending brain surgery.

Source: Neurosurgical Simulation and Virtual Reality Center

Unlike being shown 2D MRI scans, where a large white mass indicates the presence of a brain tumour, by donning a VR headset, a patient can get a better understanding of their diagnosis, prognosis and the benefits and risks of surgery by stepping into a 3D version of their brain.

In the virtual setting, an avatar gives the patient a tour of the brain, approaching it from different angles. This walk-through has also been used by brain surgeons to conduct surgery planning.

Making rehabilitation easier

For many patients, recovering from brain injury, a stroke or another debilitating illness can involve repetitive exercises to restore cognitive functions to arms and legs. But this can be tedious and some people, particularly younger patients, are likely to become disengaged quickly.

Realising this, startups and collaborative projects, like Immersive Rehab, have built AR and VR applications to increase motivation during rehabilitation, which ultimately leads to better outcome for the patients. Also, researchers from Sheffield Hallam University have recently developed VR games for children with upper limb injuries. The tasks they’re required to perform in the virtual world include reaching behind their back for an arrow or reaching upwards to climb a castle wall.

When connected to a smart software system, AR and VR applications also make it easier for the healthcare professionals to monitor and track progress.

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