How augmented reality and virtual reality devices are boosting medicine


Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) devices have immense disruptive potential, with the capacity to change how the healthcare industry delivers patient care and provider training. These technologies are helping to take medicine outside clinical spaces and will present a wide range of opportunities for innovators as professionals continue to adapt.

Tim Jennings,  Custom Case Group

Custom Case Group augmented reality virtual reality devices healthcare medtech

[Image courtesy of Custom Case Group]

Advancements in medical technology have historically resulted in a departure from old ways of practicing medicine and providing care. For example, increased awareness of the consequences of bacterial exposure on surgical outcomes in the late 1800s brought physicians out of homes and into sterile hospital and office environments. The modern necessities of cardiac monitoring and assisted respiration for the critically ill, combined with the efficacy of advanced diagnostic technologies like MRI and PET scanning, have only solidified the primacy of hospitals and offices as locations for patient care. While modern clinical spaces and the sophisticated technologies that the medical profession relies on have certainly been a boon to patient wellness, there are some downsides to having fixed centers of care:

  • It may be difficult for rural populations to access health care facilities, which can result in poor health outcomes.
  • The rise of MRSA and other hospital-endemic and antibiotic-resistant pathogens make hospital stays dangerous for immunodeficient and elderly patients.
  • It’s not always economically feasible for patients or patient caregivers to come to an office for care, especially when dealing with restrictive work or child care obligations.

Telemedicine is one potential answer to these problems and is growing in popularity for the diagnosis and treatment of common maladies. Thanks to the widespread use of smartphone video chat technology, a mother can see a primary care physician for a child’s case of pink eye without leaving the home. But, telemedicine is still limited. Technology hasn’t made telemedicine more feasible for anything other than basic care for easily diagnosed and treated conditions.

With the advent of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in the medical device industry, the medical vocabulary surrounding the point of care may need to change. These technologies have the potential to blur the boundaries that separate offices, hospitals and homes, as well as redefine how providers deliver care to patients with chronic conditions.

Augmented reality for patient-centric care

AR apps, wearables and mobile devices have shown tremendous potential in patient self-monitoring, diagnosis and patient care. AR technology layers over the real world, providing digital visuals, sounds or other stimuli that give insights from gathered data or add enhanced detail to reality. From contact lenses that give visual cues to diabetics when glucose levels fluctuate dangerously to smartwatches that use near-field communication to remind patients to take prescription medicine when it’s nearby, there are already technologies in development that help patients take control of their health using AR.

AR can also help healthcare providers untether themselves from fixed technologies that limit movement and provide interruptions in care. Relying on stationary terminals for inputting and viewing medical records doesn’t have to be the standard practice. AR glasses with gesture-based interfaces that display patient information give a hands-free, highly mobile opportunity to providers. Mobile technology that uses AR to assist with blood draws and diagnostic apps that use smartphone cameras to cross-reference visual symptoms against a database of categorized images are a couple of potential game-changers that already exist. While some therapeutic situations will probably always call for the resources and equipment of a dedicated medical facility, the possibility that a provider’s office might simply be wherever the provider is — if they have the proper gadgetry — is becoming more likely.

Virtual reality possibilities for clinical spaces

What if here was anywhere? What if a hospital room was only a moment away from becoming a tropical beach, or a mentally stimulating game world? VR enables these possibilities — and more. VR headsets that are already on the market allow patients to have carefully crafted visual experiences that can suit a range of purposes. VR experiences can serve as adjunctive care with other treatment regimens, like programs that provide visuals for amputees or stroke patients in physical therapy. VR can also provide an alternative to some pharmaceutical interventions for psychiatric care, especially in the treatment of phobias, anxiety or even some personality disorders.

VR can even perform an analgesic function by distracting patients in pain, potentially lessening the need for heavy pain medication. One study from 2011 explored how military burn victims dealt with the painful process of wound debridement with or without the use of a VR headset. Those who got to experience VR during the procedure reported significantly less pain. Since that study, VR has only become more immersive, which bodes well for the future of VR in pain relief. As VR hardware continues to become lighter and even more self-contained, where VR experiences take place will matter less and less.

What if being “at” a surgery was a matter of connectivity rather than of physical presence? That’s already happening, too. Thanks to VR technology, medical training and Continuing Medical Education (CME) software and equipment have seen the beginnings of a revolution. Rather than traveling across the world to witness a rare procedure being performed by an expert, surgeons can witness important surgeries in immersive VR. Clinicians who are in training or getting CME credit can practice new techniques without needing live patients.

Where patient care and provider training happen is changing, with AR and VR devices at the forefront of this paradigm shift. As these technologies gain momentum, there will be no shortage of opportunities for innovators who want to enter the market. Whatever devices emerge, patients and providers stand to benefit.

Tim Jennings is president of Custom Case Group (San Dimas, Calif.). The company has customization facilities in California and Minnesota to develop custom medical cases to meet exact specifications. 

The opinions expressed in this blog post are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of or its employees.

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