Augmented Reality Expected to Advance, Improve Surgery
Immersive data access could be used to save lives
If you have ever watched a medical drama on TV such as “The Good Doctor” or the movie “Iron Man” you may have seen Hollywood’s version of augmented reality (AR) surgery. In real life, AR technologies blend computer-generated images and data from MRI and CT scans with real-world camera views allowing doctors to visualize bones, muscles and internal organs before even cutting skin.
While modern surgeons embrace tech tools that give them greater clarity while decreasing errors, TV dramas and even video games have helped make medical AR more acceptable to the general public by raising their understanding of the technology. For example, in the video game Pokémon Go, you can monitor a live view of a physical, real-world environment via your smart phone, augmented by computer-generated sensory inputs, such as an animated 3D character, sound, graphics or GPS data. Unlike virtual reality, which creates more of a fantasy world, AR users do not lose touch with reality of their surroundings, and overlay input is placed into eyesight nearly instantaneously.
Advantages of AR in medical care include improving precision during operations, reducing medical errors and giving doctors and patients an enhanced view and increased understanding of complex medical issues. Portable AR technologies will also greatly help first responders and paramedics increase accuracy in their life-saving operations. AR reduces equipment redundancy and will eventually reduce costs.
Augmented Reality Surgery
Microsoft’s HoloLens is one tool surgeons are using to better “see” inside patients before operating. Traditional methods may include a handheld ultrasound device to locate key blood vessels, bones and muscles. Using a CT scan and uploading the data to create a 3D view prior to surgery, however, is not only far more accurate, it is making procedures quicker and safer. For example, AR technology can map out a limb and place scanned images on top of the appendage before the operation begins, identifying precisely where to make incisions and injections. By placing images on the body, the doctor can focus solely on the patient, rather than dividing their view between the patient and a monitor. Microscopic operations, such as transplanting and reconnecting veins, is brought into easy view. The surgeon, along with multiple colleagues wearing HoloLens headsets, can collaborate live during the procedure.
Outside the OR
Imagine an ambulance paramedic out in the field arriving at a serious car accident. Within moments, diagrams and life-saving instructions are projected on a patient’s body, such as the precise point to push on the heart, with a visualization of step-by-step instructions. As AR technology becomes more widespread and affordable, this virtual visualization could be applied to medical emergencies where staff have less medical training, such as emergency personnel in a resort responding to a guest heart attack, or first responders during a natural disaster.
Similarly, AR has great potential advantages to procedures done outside hospital operating rooms. ERs and clinics typically have less staff, support and technology, and the rooms are not specifically designed for surgical procedures. AR capability, integrating imaging and patient data ahead of a procedure, could greatly improve quality and safety while reducing costs by minimizing procedure-related complications.
Ultrasounds, mammography, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), coupled with the development of microscopic cameras, super-fast processors and real time data streaming, has greatly improved medical imaging quality in the past few years. But until AR, these advances in imaging were still being displayed in 2D on a flat screen that hadn’t really changed much since the 1950s.
Having to look up at a monitor, rather than having images projected on the patient in real time, presents a couple of significant problems. The surgeon is taking their eye focus away from the body, then must translate what they see on the screen from a viewer’s perspective back to what they are seeing on the patient. Different types of data are displayed separately on screens, leaving it up to the doctor to mentally fuse these images together. It takes a great skill and imagination to mentally move the image between screen and patient during a procedure.
With AR, all image data can be projected at once onto the patient in the doctor’s field of view, or in as many or few layers as the doctor chooses. For example, at Maryland Blended Reality Center’s Augmentarium prototype medical AR applications overlay a hovering echocardiogram with vital signs and details of the patient’s aneurysm. The surgeon can keep their focus on the patient, rather than looking away at a monitor, to review all necessary information.
Safer procedures means less errors and reduced patient care costs. There is also huge potential savings by eliminating redundant equipment. Currently, different imaging systems such as ultrasound, endoscopy, and bronchoscopy each use their own proprietary display monitors and data cannot be merged together. AR provides a shared imaging display that also incorporates a patient’s physiological data from multiple sources, eliminating the need for redundant screens.
AR technology is still evolving. Doctors need to make the adjustment of wearing a device on their head, and the hardware needs to be comfortable and work reliably and effectively, with extreme accuracy of projected images. Technology is improving at a rapid pace, overcoming technical challenges. Research and investment in AR technology will result in better patient care, saving more lives, decreasing medical errors and costs.