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The health care industry of the near future will look quite a bit different than it does today — and technology is one of the biggest reasons why. How can you tell if a system will be a winner, though?
Sometimes, you can tell by following patterns in public spending. National health care systems such as the U.K.'s NHS could soon be investing in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to the tune of $5 billion annually in just a few years. What's the appeal? As it turns out, there are many compelling applications for AR and VR in modern health care. Here are a few of them.
Why Are AR and VR Perfect for Health Care?
To get at the heart of why augmented reality is perfect for health care, we only need to look at the basic point of AR in the first place: to provide digital facsimiles of objects that may or may not actually exist, added on top of the real world. For instance, augmented reality allows one to:
- Use manipulable objects in great detail without the chance of incurring damage. Think of complex machinery in various states of disassembly, assembly and maintenance — or a digital facsimile of a patient or a cadaver.
- Retain one's sense of surroundings. AR superimposes images onto the real world, rather than replacing the world outright with digital imagery. AR could be a true ally in operating rooms, where a heads-up display on a pair of digital glasses could complement the surgeon's skills and the attending staff without being overly intrusive.
Likewise, it's not difficult to imagine the applications of virtual reality technology in health care, either.
Augmented reality creates digital imagery that complements the physical world. It does this using a smartphone or a tablet screen — or a wearable like Google Glass, which has finally found its calling in professional environments, including engineering and medicine.
Full virtual reality, on the other hand, creates a totally immersive environment without the inherent safety risks of the real world. The implications for training are enormous. In-training doctors and nurses would be able to experience what life is really like in some of the high-pressure environments they'd have to contend with, including busy hospital waiting rooms, emergency rooms and operating theaters.
What About Specific Use Cases for AR and VR in Health Care?
The world of radiology involves the use of powerful imaging equipment to detect the presence of diseases and come to conclusions about the next steps to take for an agreeable patient outcome. Radiology is one of several important fields within health care that is already showing considerable potential when it comes to applying AR and VR to patient wellness.
1. Making Diagnoses Based on Captured Images
One of the biggest challenges in modern medicine concerns bringing medical talent to underserved populations. Whether it's returning veterans, patients relying on Medicare or an average family securing health care on their state's exchange, everybody deserves a certain minimum quality of care when it comes to diagnostic and specialist medicine.
However, underserved communities have been underserved for a reason. In many cases, it's because of geography. To that end, it's likely that the medical community will soon see the capture and transmission of 3D imagery in diagnostic medicine as the new norm. To begin with, 3D images together with AR and VR produce multilayered, highly useful tools for making diagnostic medicine even more accurate and timely.
Moreover, thanks to the mobility of electronic health records, the patient — provided they have access to a health care facility with imaging services — can more easily have their pick of doctors, since the resulting images can travel with them. Attending physicians with a VR headset, for example, could make informed and time-sensitive diagnoses from anywhere in the world.
2. Guiding Surgical Procedures and Other Interventions
Nobody enjoys the idea of going under for surgery — but when it does get raised as a possible resolution to your course of treatment, you want your surgeon to have the best tools available.
Augmented reality is going to really shine in the surgical community. Although robot surgeons are still very much a possibility, AR is stepping into the mix as a compelling and useful stopgap. Surgeons wearing Google Glasses or a similar wearable could receive supplementary images and other materials in their peripheral vision, rather than looking up at X-rays or MRIs for reference every few seconds or minutes. The same concept readily applies to dentists, who must reference a series of X-rays and even plaster molds of patient gums and teeth as they align braces and other corrective hardware.
Of course, one of the benefits of AR and VR for radiology can readily apply to any other field, as well.
3. Education and Employee Training for Doctors, Nurses and Surgeons
In a few years, we might be wondering how medicine and virtual reality didn't hook up even sooner. There are many ways in which virtual reality could enter the classroom at medical colleges — first and foremost by offering detailed, interactive 3D models for students. Compared with using cadavers for study, virtual reality is considerably more hygienic and likely even more useful. It doesn't spare the grisly and important details any more than a dissection would, but it allows a considerably greater degree of flexibility and personalization, based on the nature of the class and the course material.
Plenty of Challenges Left
All the potential here for bringing AR and VR to health care sounds extremely promising — and it is. If they don't make it to your small-town doctor overnight, though, don't be too forlorn. Adoption and rollout is slow, but the reception so far has been positive. Family doctors using glasses and wearables to augment their bedside manners has received generally favorable reviews among the public. Doctors who became early adopters of augmented reality devices, notably Google Glass, report almost all their patients welcome the technology into the exam room.
Granted, the health care industry has plenty of other challenges just now too, including reconciling public support for Medicare expansions and public options with the needs of hospital systems, doctors, nurses and insurance bureaucracy. When it comes to the doctor-patient relationship, however, nothing can be allowed to interfere. That's why it's encouraging for technology to be finding a home here, where it can do some good without compromising the personal touch that health care customers have always relied on during some of their most difficult times.