3 Ways Virtual and Augmented Reality are Changing the Way We Heal

Virtual Reality used to have two identities: one was the sexy, escapist VR presented by Hollywood where citizens of future societies can instantaneously render entire worlds. The other was the actual clunky device that weighed 25 pounds and showed you a series of geometric shapes meant to represent trees or mountains. The publicly available version of Google Glass flopped, but Google says they just working on the next generation of Glass. We’ll see.

So while VR certainly hasn’t reached those sophisticated, Hollywood heights just yet, it has definitely built up its buzz-worthiness since Mark Zuckerberg’s 2014 purchase of Oculus.

The leading edge of VR is gaming, obviously. It is a multi-billion dollar industry whose entire reason for existing is to help the consumer forget who they are and what time it is. However, another surprising engine for development and innovation has come from hospital clinicians and medical researchers. They have been keen to see how VR and AR can change the patient experience: from providing more comprehensive education before a procedure, to improving the medical professional’s success rate with practice and virtual mentorship.

Let’s take a look at a few ways Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies are impacting the clinical and medical fields.

1. Training and Planning

OSSim Technologies has created a virtual reality simulator designed for the training of medical students and orthopedic residents called SIM-K. Using haptic sensors, students get real-time feedback in the form of force and resistance while handling drills and bonesaws, which allows them to practice a knee replacement procedure in its totality.OSSim has also begun developing similar technology for spinal and neurosurgery.

Microsoft has introduced it’s Hololens to students at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. This collaboration has allowed researchers to examine anatomical structures in unfathomable detail. A student interviewed by CWU said, “You can take any anatomical part and show any of it. You can move it around you can make it kind of translucent so you can see through the outside. That really helped me understand how cardiac anatomy worked.” Depending on how Microsoft evolves this product (if it does), it could get much better.

Regular anatomy is one thing, but thanks to VR and 3D Printing, physicians can now scan an abnormal organ (like the heart) and print it out to practice delicate maneuvers with atypical chamber sizes and shapes. This greatly reduces the surprises that can arise during the actual operation and therefore increases the chances of success. That is HUGE.

2. Augmented Reality in the Operating Room

Now surgeons who have to perform a procedure they’re not familiar with have a stunning way to overcome that lack of experience: a University of Alabama at Birmingham surgical team has performed one of the first surgeries using a virtual augmented reality technology from VIPAAR in conjunction with Google Glass, a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display that is currently a bit in limbo. Basically the operating surgeon has a “merged-reality environment” created by the Google Glass that allows them to transmit their image to the practiced surgeon while simultaneously receiving an image of that practiced surgeon’s hands in their display showing them how to proceed. This is remarkable because it means that, even in less developed countries or regions where the skill level might not be as high, a surgeon can potentially operate with world class deftness.

Another application of Google Glass is being used at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The attending physician can scan a QR code outside a patient’s room using Glass which then overlays helpful clinical data like nurses notes and lab results in their field of view as they examine the patient. Droiders takes the utility of Glass even further with a platform called MedicAR. By aiming their goggles at a small temporary tattoo on the patient’s body, the platform superimposes step-by-step illustrations of the procedure, along with CT/MRI images, notes and diagnostic information.

3. Patient Experience

I have previously described how patient education is improved with 3D rendering, so it’s no surprise that virtual reality takes that to the next level. At Tufts Medical Center,they use VR to introduce the surgical team and explain the operating room’s equipment. This could be especially valuable to a patient undergoing treatment without anesthesia, because it will familiarize them with their surroundings before the procedure.

Another way that virtual and augmented realities can aid the patient is through therapy.Restless children stuck in the hospital for months with horrible diseases are given an immersive means of escape from their pain and boredom. There’s also been considerable research into virtual reality’s ability to treat or provide relief for a wide range of issues like heroin addiction, depression, PTSD, phobias, phantom pain, stress, and anxiety. I urge you to look at what SnowWorld has done for burn patients to see the true extent of VR’s capabilities.

As you can see, VR has come a long way, and, while it might not be sexy just yet, it is already extremely beneficial to the medical community. I’m very excited for what might come next.