6 Healthcare Examples Of Virtual, Augmented And Mixed Reality

Lately, there has been a tendency in the tech world to adopt “new” realities in their midst. Meta has a branch dedicated to developing virtual reality (VR) hardware and software; earlier this year HTC unveiled its new augmented reality (AR) glasses; while Apple is reportedly gearing up to launch a mixed reality (MR) headset. 

Collectively, VR, AR and MR fall under the umbrella term of extended reality (XR), which analysts believe holds the potential to be the next major computing platform. Such potentials have spillover effects into the medical field through digital health approaches, and healthcare practice is already adopting such XR approaches. We’ll take a look at examples of each, but first, let’s get acquainted with those “new realities” through the following:

Term What it does
Virtual Reality (VR) Completely shields the physical world from the user and immerses them in an interactive virtual environment
Augmented Reality (AR) Superimposes the physical environment with virtual elements that have limited interaction 
Mixed Reality (MR) Merges aspects from both VR and AR to incorporate virtual elements into the physical world with a wide range of interaction
Extended Reality (XR) An umbrella term for technologies including VR, AR and MR

Virtual reality: complete immersion for exposure therapy and pain management

Virtual reality might be the most popular form of XR as it has been popularised by the likes of Meta and the gaming industry. Traditionally, the technology is accessed through a dedicated headset that completely shields the wearer’s view and immerses them in a virtual world.

The immersiveness that VR offers has made it an appropriate fit as a drug-free alternative for mental health care and pain management.

In the case of mental health, more specifically anxiety disorders, VR exposure therapy (VRET) –  which involves gradual exposure of a patient to an anxiety-inducing stimulus – has gained traction. Researchers found the approach can be effective while also offering the potential for remote mental health access, and thereby increasing accessibility. Already, companies like oVRcome and Psylaris offer commercially-available VRET.

VR has also been explored to reduce pain in labour and delivery by having the user visualise breathing and relaxation techniques. A study utilising such a method found that women who used VR during labour had a statistically significant reduction in pain. In subsequent studies, researchers found similar benefits of VR-aided labour.

Augmented reality: virtual elements for patient education and aiding surgery

There might also be some familiarity with augmented reality as it is the technology employed behind the much-hyped Pokémon Go as well as Snapchat filters. AR can be accessed through a screen, which can be a smartphone or even glasses, that superimposes virtual elements onto the real world.

While the technology is still maturing, AR already has some promising use cases in healthcare. In fact, despite the budding aspect of the technology, researchers identified the technology as potentially beneficial in patient education, whether it’s for nutritional or pre-operative information. UK-based company Curiscope already manufactures commercially-available AR t-shirts that provide basic anatomy information.

AR has also been put into practice on the surgical table itself. Neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins University performed their first AR-assisted spinal fusion surgery in 2020. Using a headset developed by Augmedics, surgeons could visualise CT scans of the patient’s internal anatomy without having to look at a separate screen. A similar procedure with the technology was successfully completed in December 2022 at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York State.

Mixed reality: training future doctors and assisting in hands-free medical consultations

When it comes to mixed reality, there are some overlaps with AR as it also supplements the actual world with virtual elements akin to holograms. But MR differs in that it adds an additional layer of depth and perspective to its virtual elements that enable further interactions that are not possible through AR. MR use has largely remained in the realm of industries – rather than for the general consumer – through devices such as the Microsoft Hololens and the Magic Leap.

The former device has been adopted by Case Western Reserve University for several years in anatomy lessons. Accessed through the Hololens, their HoloAnatomy app enables students to view holograms of real body parts. The technology enabled first-year medical students to follow an all-remote anatomy course during the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority preferred this mode as well as believed such MR methods can effectively teach anatomy.

Amidst the public health crisis, the Hololens was also put to use by doctors at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. Physicians at the Trust employed the MR headset to hold hands-free conversations with colleagues and patients while viewing medical notes and X-rays for clinical decision-making.

We hope these examples helped illustrate the potential of XR technology in healthcare. Note that these were only 6 of the multitude of potential and implemented applications, and many more are expected to emerge in the near future. Are there any XR applications in healthcare that piqued your interest and weren’t featured in this article? Do share them with us!

Written by Dr. Bertalan Meskó & Dr. Pranavsingh Dhunnoo

The post 6 Healthcare Examples Of Virtual, Augmented And Mixed Reality appeared first on The Medical Futurist.

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