Augmented Reality (AR) is a technology that superimposes an environment that is completely computer-generated over the live view of the world in real-time. AR’s ability to integrate digital information with the user’s environment makes it an ideal solution for medical education as well as imaging, dentistry and nurse training as it improves accessibility and is quite cost-effective.

Let’s look at some of the real-world applications of AR in the medical and healthcare industry.

  • Dentistry — AR software integrated with smart glasses to superimpose real-time data straight from a dental scanner, allowing dentists to build perfectly sized and shaped crowns and caps.
  • Training nurses — AR-enabled, tablet-based simulations of various patient scenarios enable nurses to connect with patients and manage their daily work situations using a combination of technical, social and team skills.
  • Medical imaging — AR improves visualization of CT or MRI data by superimposing stereoscopic projections for surgical procedures. Such information is crucial in surgeries requiring accurate navigation to a particular organ. For instance, AR can be leveraged for pre-operative planning, enhancing accurate localization of tumors and surrounding structures for performing procedures like minimally invasive partial nephrectomy or radical prostatectomy. The major challenge lies in the intricate anatomy of the vascular or nervous system that leads to a complicated process for tumor removal.
  • Medical education — Medical professors can leverage AR technology to teach medical students the basic anatomy and concepts while doctors can use it to understand in detail new therapies and drugs. Currently, there are several applications that use optical character recognition to access medical textbook images and superimpose digital information on human body structures to enable students to see and understand the names and functions of bones and muscles. The ultimate goal of these applications is to eventually replace bulky textbooks and charts in favor of a more engaging and informative experience.
  • Pediatric MRI evaluation —Dealing with children can be quite difficult when it comes to conducting medical tests. To help medical professionals, AR technology can be leveraged in tablet-based games that measure children’s ability to lie still before an MRI exam. Doctors can employ the technology to judge whether a child might need an anesthetic during the MRI procedure.
  • Helping the visually impaired — AR has been leveraged in Smart Specs which enhances the visual appearance of people and objects that people interact with daily using 3D recognition software. It enables legally blind people or people with visual impairments to recognize familiar faces, search and detect lost items and navigate through their environment easily.
  • Visualization of peripheral vasculature —AR technology can be leveraged to create a digital display of a real-time map of the vasculature on the surface of the skin which allows clinicians to verify vein patency. This results in less discomfort for patients during venipuncture procedures.
  • Remote surgical expertise — Virtual Interactive Presence in Augmented Reality or VIPAR for short, is a video support solution that goes beyond telemedicine. A surgeon remotely supports a colleague during a procedure by projecting the surgeon’s hands into an AR display.

Privacy Concerns and Depth Perception Challenges Need to Be Resolved for Widespread Adoption of AR Technology
One of the key limitations of AR technology’s widespread adoption in the healthcare industry is issues related to privacy. Medical professions are rightly worried about Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance as data transferred on AR devices is not encrypted and as a result, leaves confidential patient information vulnerable.

Another concern is depth perception. It is an integral aspect of several augmented reality applications and quite often AR displays do not show the depth of virtual objects with the same fidelity as real objects. As a result, technical issues like depth perception, developing robust registration and tracking methods, designing user interfaces to intuitively control virtual and real aspects of a scene and integrating it with AR technology within medical workflows, need to be addressed to ensure widespread adoption of this technology.

What Is the Future?
The AR market will be similar to the smartphone market and as a result, will look to appeal to a huge worldwide population. The AR ecosystem is currently experiencing an influx of software and hardware manufacturers as well as mobile data and voice recognition businesses, with a substantial number of mergers and acquisitions taking place already. This further strengthens the interest in this technology from all industry segments.

AR developers must primarily address regulatory and privacy-based concerns to be successful in the healthcare segment, which stands to benefit greatly from AR-assisted surgeries and in patient behavioral and rehabilitation programs.

In 2021, we can expect the healthcare industry to be among the first to recognize the advantages of AR technologies on human behavior, patient experience and life-saving interventions. By 2025 we can expect AR technology to be leveraged in healthcare applications that allow consumers to thoroughly analyze their health and well-being in real-time, enabling them to receive a snapshot of how time and unhealthy lifestyle would affect and change their bodies over time.