Nov 23 2020

What Does the Future Hold for AR and VR in Healthcare?

Therapeutic and educational, the visual aids are primed to play a central role in more aspects of care delivery.

As the pandemic continues, some providers are looking to virtual and augmented reality tools to foster a connection with patients and support more personalized care — especially in scenarios where physical contact must be limited.

The technologies can simulate a fully immersive experience (VR) or incorporate sensory elements in a real-world setting via AR (think Pokemon GO).

Until recently, the platforms were “limited to niche applications, such as patient education before a surgery,” says Dr. Samuel Browd, professor of neurological surgery at the University of Washington and a co-founder of Proprio, a surgical-navigation technology company. 

VR ON THE FRONTLINES: Learn how virtual reality tools can boost COVID-19 care.

But, he notes, they’re growing exponentially as clinical teams adapt to the realities of COVID-19.

The market for virtual and augmented reality in healthcare is expected to reach $2.4 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research, as use cases expand to include pain management, memory care and medical training, among other things.

“If you consider the future is healthcare being delivered anywhere the individual is, there are so many use cases for VR and AR technology,” says Jennifer Radin, a principal in Deloitte’s healthcare practice.

Here are some ways the immersive technologies are making inroads in medicine.

VR Provides Medical Immersion for a Range of Patient Needs

Healthcare consumers already have had exposure to AR and VR. Some experiences — the ability to “try on” glasses via retailers’ websites, for instance — are an easy, effective entry point, says Jeffrey Becker, a senior healthcare analyst at Forrester.

“You are starting to see the use of AR as a patient-facing engagement tool,” Becker says, noting that some companies offer similar solutions in the aesthetic medicine and orthodontia markets to give users a sense of the intended progress or result of a procedure.

As patients remain in isolation, meanwhile, healthcare organizations might consider launching — or increasing — VR programs for self-guided rehabilitation exercises and addressing chronic pain, says Adriaan Louw, a co-founder of the International Spine & Pain Institute and an adjunct professor at several schools, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“Virtual care, or at least hybrid models of in-person and virtual, will likely be commonplace going forward,” Louw says. “Forward-thinking systems should consider having a fleet of VR headsets at their disposal for a variety of applications.”

For example, a headset, once properly cleaned, could be transferred from a physical therapy patient to a mother-to-be in the labor and delivery room for a visual distraction.

AR and VR for Surgery Deliver Preparation and Efficiency

Care recipients aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit. Increasingly, VR and AR technologies are being used in operating rooms and classrooms to help surgeons prepare for the jobs ahead.

“Surgeons who are using AR and VR from the checklist perspective, who can walk through the organs they are about to operate on — this is profoundly changing the way surgeries are performed today,” Radin says.

The next wave of technology investment will focus on creating efficiencies in delivering complex care, Browd says.

“Instead of showing an X-ray to a patient and telling them what you're going to do, we can show them a 3D model of what will happen during the surgery and what it will look like afterward,” he says, adding that the platforms’ real paradigm-shifting value will be using the technology to improve surgery while it’s in progress. 

Says Browd, “Once a surgeon experiences AR intraoperatively, they have a hard time conceptualizing how they would ever stay with the status quo of today.”

Addressing Disparities to Expand VR Programs in Healthcare

Access to 5G networks and 5G-enabled devices is a major barrier to wider use of AR and VR in healthcare, says Becker, adding that general disparities in resources could put some organizations further behind the curve.

GET STARTED: Take these 4 steps to launch a patient-centric VR program.

There isn’t yet a strong case for cost savings in applying AR and VR to virtual care and chronic disease management, Becker says, but that could shift as more data and research become available.

Louw believes the financial benefits will be realized.

“As payers see the better outcomes and cost savings afforded by virtual care platforms, including VR, they will likely pay for these programs, making them part of routine care plans,” Louw says.

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