The healthcare industry requires constant development and innovation. One of the notable cases at the intersection of medicine and IT is the use of software with VR and AR by doctors to cope with their professional tasks. These technologies have acquired particular relevance over the past year. We’ll share how robots teach doctors, assist in performing surgeries, and how surgeons use VR in practice.
What are VR technologies?
VR (Virtual Reality) is a simulation created by computer technology, which allows the user to participate in a virtual action through the use of dedicated tools (for example, touch 3D glasses, a mask, or contact lenses). In such an artificially-modeled environment, a person can not only see objects of the virtual world but also perceive them as almost fully real.
The very concept of ‘virtual reality’ consists of two words: ‘virtual’ and ‘real’. And that’s what the technology is all about: it unites a non-existent visual world with real sensations, the perception of this world by a person. Being in one place, the user can actually ‘appear’ in another place – virtually, of course.
There is also such a concept as AR (Augmented Reality). The application of this technology doesn’t involve a fully-created simulated world, but it’s about the imposition of additional templates and visuals on an already existing reality. Here, glasses or a camera can be used as well (for example, a camera in a smartphone with a dedicated app). In this case, a person sees the real world on the screen, but with some changes or additions.
VR and AR in medicine
Both AR and VR are used in healthcare. Today, these technologies allow professionals to cope with the tasks they face as effectively as possible.
For example, AR helps surgeons by enhancing their senses and sharpening their perception. In December 2020, Swiss specialists performed the world’s first spinal cord surgery, where the area of intervention was combined with a 3D holographic reconstruction of an MRI image of the affected area. AR not only provided higher image resolution but also assisted the surgeon, helping to achieve the maximum accuracy of the intervention on nerve tissue.
AR and VR technologies are widely used in the creation of simulation programs for training doctors. The image simulates the conditions of a real surgery or interaction with a patient as realistically as possible.
VR is also used in psychology and psychiatry. For example, patients undergoing treatment for phobias are placed in an artificially-created environment simulating a situation that triggers their fears.
Recently, a project was launched in the UK to help patients with trypanophobia – a fear of injections and syringes, which affects at least 10% of the country’s adult population. The software company has partnered with the National Health Service and offered an imitation of a medical room in VR. Vaccination is carried out there under the remote supervision of a psychotherapist. This service is expected to be in particularly high demand now, during vaccination against COVID-19.
How the pandemic affected the work of doctors
The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the provision of health services to patients. According to a study by the World Journal of Emergency Surgery (where 80 healthcare workers from 31 countries participated), 65.3% of respondents estimated the impact of the pandemic on emergency surgery as ‘strong’ and ‘very strong’. The total number of surgical patients has decreased, as reported by 87.8% of the survey participants.
During the spread of COVID-19, medical institutions had to reconsider their approach to the elective treatment of patients, including surgeries. The focus of doctors has shifted to the containment of the virus and the provision of care to coronavirus patients. Many healthcare facilities have been converted into infectious hospitals. Hundreds of thousands of patients had to postpone their elective surgeries.
This situation couldn’t but affect surgeons. Experience and constant improvement of skills in practice are important conditions for the quality work of doctors. Long-term downtime in the work of medical practitioners can result in the loss of qualification.
Applying VR and AR to train surgeons
In a difficult situation, companies that provide healthcare software development services came to the rescue. They offered doctors software products for online learning, which were based on VR technology. Hundreds of clinics in the U.S. have already started implementing these solutions.
In September 2020, Annals of Medicine and Surgery published a massive study on the impact of the pandemic on the provision of health services. According to scientists, the site giving access to a 3D neurosurgical atlas has seen a 20% increase in the number of visitors over the past yeaк – 45% of them are students and medical practitioners aged 25 to 34 years, who noted the negative impact of the pandemic on their professional development.
A Chicago-based company created a product called ImmersiveTouch, which leverages VR and AR technology. It enables surgeons to practice and virtually “perform” surgeries by using a dedicated Oculus headset and 3D images of patients without being in the operating room.
In 2020, the number of users of the IT startup tripled. The software is based on technology similar to that used in many AR games like PokemonGo. The product’s graphics resemble computer graphics from Star Wars.
AR and VR technology underlay the PrecisionOS software product developed by a Canadian company. This is an operating room simulator for training medical students, co-developed by an orthopedic surgeon and game developers. The software has already been installed and is being used in 22 educational institutions in North America.
The role of VR technology in the actual practice of surgeons
Custom healthcare software development, based on VR and AR, is relevant for the practice of medicine. Such software products allow doctors from all over the world to participate in the most complex surgeries remotely.
For example, the software product Proximie, developed under the supervision of the Lebanese-American reconstructive surgeon Nadine Hachach-Haram, is based on AR technology. With the help of this program, doctors can participate ‘live’ in the operation anywhere in the world.
The first surgery using Proximie was performed on an 18-year-old patient from the Gaza region and was successful. Over the next five years, the program helped surgeons from more than 35 countries to operate on thousands of patients. Elizabeth II awarded Nadine Hachach-Haram with a medal for her development of this system.
Innovative healthcare software solutions are gaining paramount importance. The forced necessity of doctors to find an unconventional way out of difficult situations has no small part in such a breakthrough. AI-based products, 3D technologies, smart assistants, TeleMedicine, and programs using AR and VR are coming to the rescue of doctors.
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