The high potential of VR/AR technologies

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Healthcare is an important submarket for technology companies, and the industry is growing at a breakneck speed. Five of the world’s 10 largest companies — including Amazon, Apple, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet — have announced major health-related initiatives within the last year. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), in particular, are poised to have a far-reaching impact on the industry. Experts forecast the value of the global market for VR- and AR-based healthcare technologies to exceed $5 billion by 2025.

Virtual reality typically involves using headsets and other sensory equipment to interact with realistic simulated environments. Augmented reality, meanwhile, generally refers to technologies that superimpose text and images on users’ actual surroundings in real time.

As demand for virtual healthcare technologies continues to grow, technology companies are racing to develop VR and AR products that will further improve the storage, display, and analysis of patient data. In October, the FDA approved the first AR medical solution designed for Microsoft’s HoloLens headset, a leading device in the nascent AR market. Physicians will soon be able to use the OpenSight Augmented Reality System to review interactive visualisations of internal anatomy overlaid on the outside of the patient’s body. OpenSight’s creator, the medical imaging company Novarad, claims the system can “improve the precision, speed and safety of medical procedures.”

The FDA approval is a notable development in the growing adoption of VR and AR healthcare technologies, and more breakthroughs are on the horizon.

Breakthroughs in VR/AR healthcare technology

There is a tremendous opportunity for VR and AR solutions to help healthcare providers unlock the value of vast amounts of health data that have never been used to their full potential. By leveraging this trove of information, organisations will have opportunities to significantly reduce costs and provide higher-quality patient care.

Some healthcare organisations are already using virtual reality to train physicians to perform complex medical procedures with greater accuracy. Such tools are particularly effective for collaborating with doctors who are located in remote areas without access to a full range of conventional resources for performing surgeries or diagnosing patients.

VR also has a wide range of patient-facing applications. For example, physicians can use the technology to educate patients about upcoming procedures, using step-by-step simulations to demonstrate exactly how they will perform a surgery. Doctors could also increase the effectiveness of diabetes treatments by showing patients what they would look like if they follow a particular weight loss program. Similarly, cosmetic surgeons could use VR to present patients with before-and-after visualisations of how different types of procedures could improve their physical appearance.

Virtual reality therapy, in which patients interact with realistic but harmless simulations of traumatic events from their past, has been successfully used to treat mental health conditions such as anxieties, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. Immersive VR therapy could also help curb the opioid epidemic: a 2018 study in The Journal of Burn Care & Research found that patients who participated in VR simulations while undergoing painful wound care procedures were less likely to request additional doses of painkillers compared to those who did not use VR. This would not be a “cure” for addictions but a strategy for avoiding them altogether by providing an alternative approach for pain relief that focuses on the patient’s neurological makeup rather than relying solely on medication.

Augmented reality technology can be used to create virtual libraries that offer immediate access to detailed information about past medical procedures, allowing doctors to more precisely evaluate potential outcomes and risk factors when planning treatment options. Similarly, AR technologies can also facilitate access to patients’ full medical histories, making it easier to anticipate potential complications and adverse effects that that procedures might have on individual patients.

Systems that combine AR and facial recognition features can help providers identify their patients when they arrive and pull up their entire medical histories with a quick facial scan, reducing both clerical errors and patient wait times in the process. Such technologies would allow doctors and nurses to spend more time interacting with patients rather than manually reviewing their files, thereby improving doctor-patient relationships.

Evolving healthcare technology market

Startups have been at the forefront of developing most of these early-stage innovations, largely because they are well-equipped to navigate the challenges that come with introducing new technologies within the healthcare sector. One of these hurdles is the tendency among healthcare organisations to move very slowly in adopting new information systems, as we have seen with the implementation of electronic health records over the last decade. VR and AR technology is also relatively expensive at this phase of its development, and while costs will come down over time, they remain a barrier for many organisations.

Startups have also been addressing data security challenges throughout the R&D process. Security and data privacy will always be a top priority in the development of new healthcare technology, and organisations are likely to face increasing scrutiny of how they use, store, and secure patient data as it becomes the focal point in planning more effective treatment options.

Now that startups have laid the foundation, major tech players like Microsoft, Google and Apple are becoming more active within the healthcare space, upping their investments in solutions powered by AI and VR/AR technologies. While the tech giants are generally less agile than their smaller competitors when it comes to carving out brand-new product niches, their involvement will undoubtedly change the way these technologies are created and marketed. Their vast R&D resources, combined with their ability to roll out products on a very large scale, could significantly accelerate the growth of the market. Their participation will also advance efforts to standardise and bring down the costs of many of these tools.

Future outlook for VR/AR healthcare IT

As virtual and augmented reality continue to enhance healthcare providers’ ability to access and analyse medical data, organisations will need to increase their investments in information systems and personnel to effectively leverage this data. The market is poised for rapid growth as the technology becomes more streamlined, standardised and affordable. As providers seek new opportunities to operate more efficiently and provide higher-quality care, the potential for further breakthroughs in VR and AR healthcare IT can only increase.

Sanket Shah, instructor, University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Biomedical and Health Information Sciences (BHIS)
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