How Augmented and Virtual Reality Are Changing the Healthcare Experience

PublisherSol Minion Developmenthttps: Healthcare Augmented RealityVirtual RealityEthics

Immersive technologies, such as augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR), are transforming workplace dynamics in many sectors. Over the past few years, potential use cases of AR/VR in healthcare have expanded rapidly. From immersive medical education to performing surgeries and beyond, the potential is intriguing.  

In healthcare, however, there are still unique legal and ethical hurdles for providers to consider as they move forward in adopting AR/VR tech. Establishing safe and effective protocols for AR/VR technology that also safeguard patient rights to privacy will take time. 

Let's explore where things stand with immersive tech in healthcare today.

How are AR and VR Applications Different?

There are a couple of important distinctions between AR and VR technology in healthcare. The International Bar Association defines AR in healthcare as an “enrichment of the physical world by integrating computer-generated imagery through devices such as cameras, screens (eg, mobile devices), head-mounted displays (HMDs) or heads-up displays (HUDs).” This can simplify real-time feedback and guidance for healthcare providers in a wide range of scenarios.

On the other hand, VR is described as full immersion in a virtual environment that replaces, rather than overlays, the physical environment. This can be especially helpful in training scenarios, or in assessing patients’ sensory functions during virtual consultations, for example. 

Emerging AR/VR Applications in Healthcare

Enhancing Communication between Patients and Providers

In clinical settings, few things are as important as clear and empathetic communication between care providers and patients. According to the Institute for Healthcare Communication, “Extensive research has shown that no matter how knowledgeable a clinician might be, if he or she is not able to open good communication with the patient, he or she may be of no help.”

Patient safety and satisfaction are heavily influenced by communication on both ends. When healthcare staff are under stress or distracted, their ability to empathize and communicate can suffer. Similarly, patients are especially vulnerable when under physical and/or financial stress.

Physicians can easily miss crucial information when a person cannot clearly articulate their history and symptoms, or advocate for their needs. With AR/VR applications, patients and providers could use simulations and interactive sensory cues to help bridge these gaps and facilitate self-directed care.

Last year, the NIH Journal of Patient Experience published a scoping review of current research on AR/VR applications in medical communication. 1000 articles were scanned across three medical databases (PubMed, Web of Science, and Embase.) 22 were selected that used similar sample sizes, methods, and criteria in their randomized control trials (RCTs).

The review found that “Results regarding intervention efficacy in enhancing communication were mostly positive across all types of communication. This applied to both VR and AR solutions.”

The revelations about the technology’s impact on empathy were also interesting. According to the review, “All 4 studies addressing empathy found that VR increased empathy response, including the third RCT in which a 5% increase in empathy response was seen.” 

AR-Assisted Surgical Procedures

The first time AR was ever used in spinal surgery was in 2020 when a 78-year-old patient with a degenerative disease underwent a procedure to decompress his lumbar and insert multiple screws. According to an article published in Forbes, “Surgeons wore the FDA-approved AR headset to visualize the patient’s CT scan as they operated and placed the implants with 100% accuracy.” Neurosurgeons have used the same technology hundreds of times in recent years.

Early adopters of AR in surgery appreciate how the technology minimizes distractions and invasiveness in procedures. Dr. Issac Moss of UConn Health’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery said that AR “allows you to do more complicated procedures through smaller exposures, which leads to less bleeding, less potential infections, a shorter recovery — all the benefits of minimally invasive spine surgery.”

AR/VR-Assisted Therapy

The FDA lists several therapeutic use cases for AR/VR that help deliver personalized care to underserved and socioeconomically vulnerable communities. These applications include:

Legal and Ethical Challenges

Because AR/VR must collect large quantities of personal and biometric data to function in healthcare settings, it comes with vastly increased security risks that must be addressed. 

The International Bar Association published an outline of key concerns on the topic, citing the collection of “usernames, biometric identification, location data, demographic information, personal preferences and IP addresses. Additionally, the user’s avatar, which represents their physical appearance, may disclose information such as race, gender, age, gestures and behavior. AR/VR devices also gather data on users’ social interactions and affiliations within the virtual world or application, such as videos, images, or screenshots.” 

The organization’s position is that developers must “outline the methods of collection, specify how the data will be used, and delineate the rights of users. To the extent possible, data collection should be limited, and legal bases for processing users’ data should always be relied on.”

It’s worth noting that the GDPR’s guidelines generally prohibit processing such data. However, there are still gaps in the legislation and it doesn’t fully account for the risks posed by AR/VR applications in healthcare.  

For healthcare providers, transparency with patients and opacity everywhere else is essential. It’s crucial to ensure that patients have full autonomy to make decisions about their care — and their data. Informed consent is key. This also includes going above and beyond to encrypt this sensitive data and safeguard it against exploitation by third parties. 

Is your practice looking into secure, immersive technology applications?