Get Real: Augmented and Virtual Reality in Healthcare

Virtual reality (VR) may be the next generation in video games, but it is far more than just a toy. VR and its cousin—augmented reality, or AR—are poised to shake up the world of healthcare.

A search for “virtual reality” in online research database PubMed yields nearly 5,000 results published in the last five years alone. The technology is of clinical interest to researchers in specialties as wide-ranging as:

  • Psychiatry
  • Neurosurgery
  • Nephrology
  • Pain management
  • ENT

…and many more. With affordable consumer-grade VR and AR equipment such as HTC Vive and Oculus Rift becoming more accessible, usable and affordable every year, VR and AR just may be the next disruptive technology in medical training and patient care.

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality: What’s the Difference?

AR and VR are similar but different technologies. To avoid confusing terms, it is important to define them.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality overlays digital information onto the real world. Look with your eyes and you’ll see nothing out of the ordinary. Look through your smartphone’s camera or an AR headset and you’ll see the real world plus software renderings, informational readouts and popup screens. Remember Pokémon Go? That’s one of the best-known examples of AR.

Virtual Reality

AR and VR can function as medical education tools

Virtual reality completely subsumes the real world. You’ll put on a special headset and be transported to a digital world, be it a game, a virtual operating room, a soothing landscape or somewhere else. Actions you take and movements you make will be transferred to your virtual world.

How AR and VR Can Change Healthcare

AR and VR have a number of potential applications in medicine and healthcare. Although these technologies are not yet widely in use, healthcare-focused tech companies are finding new ways to integrate AR and VR into healthcare every day.

In the Operating Room

AR, especially, can really shine in the OR. A heads-up display for a surgeon could be a game changer. Patient vitals, such as heart rate, pulse, oxygen saturation and even brain waves, could help the surgeon monitor the patient during the surgery, whereas overlays like highlighting the specific anatomic feature to be operated upon, such as a torn meniscus or blocked artery, may reduce the risk of medical error.

In the Classroom

VR could be really useful for medical education. Aspiring doctors will still need the hands-on experience of cadaver dissection, for example, but this could be supplemented by a VR body. In fact, some universities are doing just that, and a number of companies are already programming virtual cadavers.

In the Exam Room

Dr. Stephen Novella, a neurologist who runs the excellent Science-Based Medicine blog (a favorite at Points Group), points out that electronic health records (EHR) took quite a bit of getting used to on the part of both the doctor and the patient. Patients often complained that the doctor was too busy fiddling with the computer and felt they weren’t being listened to. AR could change that by putting pertinent patient information from the EHR into an AR display, freeing the doctor to really listen to the patient.

Or, what about X-rays and other imaging? Instead of a printout, VR could transport the doctor inside the patient’s body, based on the imaging study. VR could take true X-ray vision out of comic books and put it into the hands of clinicians.

In the Recovery Room

Pain management is one of the most surprising uses of virtual reality in a healthcare setting, and one of the most widely adopted currently. MedCityNews describes a patient attempting to deliver a baby without an epidural. She wore a VR headset that transported her to a peaceful beach, complete with voiceover breathing exercises, and was able to withstand the pain of labor long enough to deliver her baby. Another patient used similar technology to get through physical therapy after a car accident and months of chronic pain, according to US News and World Report.

Is Your Practice Ready for the New Reality?

Technology is advancing rapidly, but most of the AR and VR uses described previously are either theoretical or they’re used in narrow sets of circumstances. If your practice is not integrated with AR or VR, don’t worry. You may not need it for years, if ever, but it is good to know that these tools are or soon will be available to help you better care for your patients.

Points Group stays on the cutting edge of healthcare technology. We understand your industry like no other marketing agency, and we’ve helped hundreds of practices just like yours gain new patients, decrease patient churn, earn more revenue and have more time for what really matters. Contact us today to learn how we can help.

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