Virtual reality (“VR”) and augmented reality (“AR”) technologies have been around for some time, though the public at large tends to think of them only in the context of video games and smartphone applications. However, both technologies have much more to offer than just new forms of entertainment, and no industry has done more to put VR and AR technologies to use than the life sciences and healthcare industry.
This article provides a general introduction into some of the ways these technologies are revolutionizing the way we teach and practice medicine. From allowing specialized surgeons to better train the next generation of medical providers in the skills needed to perform medical procedures, to providing a potentially drug-free way to reduce or even eliminate surgical pain, VR and AR technologies are helping to push the life sciences to new heights.
First Things First: What Are These Technologies?
“Virtual reality” refers to the creation of a computer-generated simulation of an artificial, three-dimensional environment that can be interacted with or manipulated by the user through the use of specialized equipment, such as gloves or controllers that are fitted with electronic sensors or helmets with built-in screens and sensors that can track the user’s eye and head movements. The technologies combine to create an immersive experience, one in which a user’s sense of sight and touch effectively allow them to control the environment that the computer is generating around them. In popular culture, VR is often shown as a form of entertainment, one in which a user puts on a helmet and gloves, boots up a video game system, and then plays a video game where the user’s every movement in the real world allows her to manipulate the digital world unfolding before her eyes.
“Augmented reality,” on the other hand, refers to technology that overlays computer-generated text, images, or videos onto a user's actual view of the real world. This technology is becoming more common in passenger vehicles as car manufacturers integrate the use of Heads-Up Displays (HUDs) to superimpose information on the dashboard or windshield for a driver’s immediate attention (for example, noting when a car is over the speed limit or running out of gas). However, the most common use of AR technology can be seen in the myriad smartphone applications that allow a person to add images or text to a photo or video they are taking in real time. Meanwhile, last summer’s Pokémon Go! phenomenon has shown just how addictive (and profitable) mobile phone games that use AR technology can be.
Given their commercial value in video games and mobile phone applications, VR and AR tend to be viewed as “entertainment” technologies. There are myriad ways in which this technology can be used in other ways, however, and no industry has done more to push these technologies to new heights than educators and practitioners in the life sciences and healthcare.
VR Technology Is Helping to Train The Next Generation Of Physicians And Surgeons
Virtual reality technology in surgery has been in place for over a decade, but recent advancements in the technology allow doctors and specialized surgeons to better train the next generation of medical providers in the skills needed to perform complex medical procedures.
In 2016, cancer surgeons at the Royal London hospital broadcast the first operation to be streamed live in a 360-degree video, thereby allowing medical students (and the public at large) to follow how the surgeon removed a cancerous tissue growth from the bowel of a patient in real time.
Focused training in emergency situations is another area where virtual reality provides breakthroughs in teaching opportunities. For example, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland developed a fully interactive VR training simulator to put medical students in the shoes of an emergency department trauma leader working to treat a car accident victim. Students must assess the patient, make fast-paced decisions, and then successfully perform the surgeries necessary to save the victim’s life.
Alternative Reality Can Help Phlebotomists Find Veins and May Soon Bring Digital Overlays to Real Surgeries
Drawing blood is one of the most basic components of medical treatment, but “the needle” also happens to be one of the most feared medical tools by patients. Moreover, just about every person reading this article will likely recall at least one instance where a nurse struggled to find a “good” vein, with the result being several uncomfortable pricks to the skin. Companies like AccuVein and organizations like the Australian Red Cross’ Blood Service are working to help eliminate the guesswork by using infrared and augmented reality technologies to image a person’s veins on their skin, thereby allowing nurses and phlebotomists an easy means to locate the best vein.
More impressive still is the ability to place such digital overlays on surgery patients in real time. TouchSurgery is one such company working on bringing augmented reality to the operating room: last year, it announced that it was developing tools to put its training programs for surgical procedures (which are normally completed on a mobile phone or tablet) onto “smart glasses” like DAQRI and HoloLens. If successful, surgeons in the operating theater could perform the surgery with digital assistance instructing the surgeon and providing information that is overlaid on the patient in real time.
Virtual Reality Can Drastically Reduce Surgical Pain
One of the most exciting ways VR technology has been put to use is in the field of pain management. As chronicled extensively by The Atlantic last year, virtual reality technologies have been implemented by doctors around the world to effectively “distract” patients before, during, and after surgical treatments by immersing the patient in idyllic environments. The result is a substantial reduction in the pain symptomologies associated with their procedures. Although still in its relative infancy, this technology stands to reduce costs and recovery time, as well as complications associated with anesthesia and other pain medications. What is more, it introduces the possibility that VR technology can be used to harness the human brain and its sensory capacities to address other medical and psychological conditions, including opioid addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The applications discussed here provide a mere snapshot of the numerous ways VR and AR technology are being put to use right now in the life sciences and healthcare space. Of course, new applications are always in development, and not all uses may find their way into the mainstream. Nonetheless, rapid advancements are on the horizon and, as the cost of these technologies continues to drop and the public’s familiarity with them increases, it will only be a matter of time before doctors and patients alike are exploring healthcare problems – and solutions - in virtual and augmented reality.