Chris Netherton, M.D.

Augmented Reality (AR) could revolutionise healthcare

The exciting new technology of Augmented Reality is now being applied to a wide range of medical problems – and creating highly innovative solutions.

Augmented Reality (AR) typically involves overlaying images in real-time on to your view through a camera, smartphone or headset. One of the most famous applications of AR has been the huge worldwide success of the location-based smartphone game, Pokemon Go.

This same technology is now being used to create new applications which can help medical professionals is their day to day work. Although it is still in its early stages of development, the scope of medical uses that are being found for AR is already very impressive.

Anyone who has ever had to give a blood sample will probably, at some point, have been through an experience where the nurse or doctor struggles to locate the vein. This is also a common problem with intravenous drips, where 40% of first attempts miss the vein. AccuVein is a system which uses AR to project a 3D “map” of the patient’s veins directly on to their arm, greatly improving the chances of making an accurate insertion on the first attempt. AccuVein has already been used on over 10 million patients in the USA.

NuEyes is a company which designs AR glasses for people with impaired vision. They are lightweight and wireless, so they can be worn like normal glasses. One of the first users was 9 year old Felix, who has such impaired vision that he is legally blind. His AR glasses magnify the world around him 12 times normal size and project it as a clear image. This means that Felix can now participate fully in daily activities such as school classes and socialising with friends.

A number of companies are currently working on ultrasound systems that use AR by projecting the ultrasound image via a pair of smart glasses rather than on to a large screen. As a result, ultrasound systems can now be created which are very lightweight and portable. It is believed that this technology could be particularly valuable in developing countries, where more patients need to be examined in the field rather than at a central surgery.

Augmedics is a company based in Israel which has devised an AR system to assist surgeons in carrying out spinal surgery. Their X-Vision system projects a 3D image of the patient’s internal anatomy through a set of smart glasses as the surgeon conducts the procedure. So it is like having a “live X-ray” of the patient to guide the surgeon. This can create greater precision, save vital time during surgery and reduce the need for repeat procedures. Improved accuracy means that fewer incisions are required, which can significantly speed up recovery time for the patient. In the future, they plan to add sensors which can collect big surgical data during operations, which can then be analysed using deep learning algorithms.

What is striking to me about the field of AR is how quickly some of these innovations have progressed from initial concept to working prototype – or even live product. It is amazing to think that a technology which had its most famous application in computer gaming should now be progressing so rapidly within healthcare.

The other aspect that I love about this technology is that, like the systems that Microtest develops, it is designed to work within the medical professional’s existing workflow and to enable them to work smarter and faster – rather than completely changing their approach. This makes it even more likely that AR systems will gain wide acceptance in the years ahead.