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Why the healthcare industry needs augmented and virtual reality

Doctor preparing patient for examination

Ever wonder what it would be like to teleport a patient into your office? Or tangibly diagnose ailments from hundreds of kilometres away, just because you were able to touch, feel, smell or more vividly see the problem at hand? While the role of augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology in healthcare is still evolving, both show incredible promise. 

First developed in 1966 to help pilots prepare for real flight conditions, healthcare professionals continue to explore VR and AR to help push the limits of their field.

Someone close to the core of this topic is Keith Davidson, Technology Strategy Manager and futurist with TELUS International’s Innovation Labs (or iLabs). Based out of Vancouver, iLabs is a place where researchers and visionaries collaborate on emerging tech that aims to innovate the future.

According to Davidson, here are three ways AR and VR are changing the face of healthcare.

1. Simulating environments to enhance education

Augmented and virtual reality is revolutionizing medical education. Just like the pilots who were training with flight simulations in 1966, Davidson describes how AR and VR can help facilitate trial runs in fast-paced, high-trauma hospital settings.

“By putting prospective medical students in environments similar to the ones they will work in, they’ll be able to get used to the sounds, actions, and what it ultimately feels like to be at work,” Davidson says. “Being able to transport people into situations like this is exactly what we’re trying to solve for at iLabs.”

In addition, AR and VR tools can assist in remote training. For example, surgical students who live in rural areas can’t regularly attend live surgeries, but through VR, they’re able to closely observe and practice procedures as if they were in the operating room — but education is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Technologies similar to this are already empowering first responders to manage emergency situations with greater awareness. TELUS’ Mission Critical Push-to-X (MCPTX) services, for example, enable first responders to gain knowledge and expertise from their peers in different locations or other public safety agencies using real-time voice, video, and data communications.

2. Supporting surgeons to prepare for procedures

Bringing the power of simulation beyond the classroom, AR and VR are among many tools that enable physicians to rehearse and improve surgical techniques. What’s groundbreaking about this is the potential to empower physicians and enhance practical learning environments.

”For complex brain surgeries to extract tumours, surgeons must map out a very intricate pattern to get to where the tumour is,” Davidson explains. “Virtual reality allows the surgeon to practice their technique beforehand, assisting in the rehearsal of the surgery.”

Doctor speaking with patient

3. Evolving medical imaging to empower diagnosis and patient engagement

By stimulating environments to enhance education and further supporting surgeons to prepare for procedures, AR and VR is also bringing more dimension, accuracy, and ease of use to medical imaging. This is transforming how physicians view and interact with medical images, empowering them to make more informed decisions.

“Traditionally, when a technician looks at an MRI, they’re scanning through all of its layers and going back and forth,” Davidson explains. However, by combining medical images—such as MRI and CT scans—to represent patient anatomy in 3D, virtual technologies allow physicians to see the whole picture more easily and even interact with the images by rotating them or zooming in on details.”

Such enhanced medical imaging also supports patient engagement and education during appointments, as physicians can better explain complex diagnoses through 3D visualization. 

4. Challenging the status quo

While these applications are fascinating, they represent only a sample of what’s possible. In addition to augmented and virtual reality, many other technologies are having a positive impact on healthcare delivery.

"Innovation in healthcare is crucial for improving patient outcomes and experiences,” Davidson explains. “By embracing new technologies and approaches, we can create a more efficient, effective, and accessible healthcare system for all. As we strive to find better solutions, it's important that we remain open to iteration and experimentation, even if it means stepping outside of our comfort zones. By working together and pushing the boundaries of what's possible, we can transform healthcare for the better."

With time, there’s little doubt that augmented and virtual reality will cement their spots within healthcare professionals’ toolkits. The potential is simply too great to overlook.