How AR/MR Technology Can Reduce Medical Vulnerability for a Better Patient Experience
Paul Jensen, President, Novarad

Hospitals and health systems work hard every day to deliver patient-centered care. In fact, “the patient experience” is something now being measured, monitored and discussed throughout the healthcare continuum. Yet for most patients, moments of anxiety and medical vulnerability still abound, and the conversation rarely addresses this important fact.

Patients awaiting an X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan, for instance, maybe fearful of the results. Perhaps the image will indicate they have a life-threatening disease, or that they need complicated and expensive surgery. 

The very fact that a diagnostic image is needed essentially tells the patient, “We don’t know for certain what’s going on until we take a closer look.” It’s during the uncertainty of times such as these that patients are at their most vulnerable. The question is: How can we improve the patient experience by helping patients in their most vulnerable moments? 

One way to reduce medical vulnerability is by leveraging imaging in tandem with augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (MR) technology to shorten anxiety-causing wait times and procedures. 

The practical impact of AR and MR

To understand the possible impact of AR and MR on medical vulnerability, it’s essential to first define those technologies. 

Despite similar-sounding names and acronyms, AR and MR are not the same as virtual reality (VR). VR technologies immerse users in a wholly artificial environment. Users often don a VR headset that blocks out the real world and instead gives them a visual and auditory experience that makes them feel as though they’re in the environment created by the VR software. The dancing videogame Beat Saber for the Oculus Quest is one of many VR examples. 

AR and MR technologies, on the other hand, do not block out the real world. Rather, they superimpose digital elements over the physical environment. The popular videogame Pokémon Go is a common example of AR, and Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is an example of MR technology. 

The fact that AR and MR applications can layer digital capabilities in real-time over a patient’s actual, the physical experience opens new avenues for improving that experience. Such solutions allow providers to visualize what can’t be visualized in 2D, or even with 3D printing models. 

In essence, AR and MR offer 4D visualization capabilities. One use lets physicians register a patient’s DICOM images — their CT or MRI scans, for instance — directly onto their body during surgical planning to help determine optimal surgical navigation. This could improve surgical outcomes by reducing the need for exploratory navigation and speeding the time it takes for patients to undergo procedures. 

Reducing medical vulnerability 

Let’s face it: some medical procedures just aren’t comfortable. In fact, some are downright horrible from the patient experience perspective. However, AR and MR technologies might help reduce medical vulnerability by getting more precise information to physicians faster — thus lessening the time patients spend waiting, worrying and in treatment. Some use-cases might include:

– Mammography/biopsy. There is little about the mammography process that doesn’t involve medical vulnerability — especially when a scan reveals an area of concern. Not only must women contend with the uncertainty of a potential breast cancer diagnosis, but often they also must undergo stressful, invasive breast lesion localization and biopsy procedures. Traditionally, radioactive seeds or wires are implanted into the breast so that physicians can find the location of a suspected tumor. With AR/MR technology, however, surgeons can superimpose a woman’s mammographic images directly onto her body to enable streamlined surgical planning and navigation, with the potential of dramatically improving patient experience, and reducing unnecessary vulnerability. 

– Heart surgery. Visualizing the interior of a beating organ can be tricky for providers even without taking anomalies into consideration. Yet an AR/MR solution can enable just that for patients who need heart surgery. It allows surgeons to correlate 3D reconstructions from MRI or CT scans in different views. More importantly, it allows surgeons to keep changing the view until they see what they need to see. They can picture how close structures are to one another, as well as find feasible interior pathways.

– Rib plating. Although most rib fractures are left to heal on their own, some providers treat complex cases with a challenging procedure called rib plating. In this procedure, physicians realign and stabilize painful broken ribs using titanium plates and screws to “bridge” the breaks. Rib plating allows the patient’s chest rise and fall normally and helps reduce risks such as short- and long-term chronic pain, pneumonia or decreased lung function. Some trauma surgeons have used AR/MR technology to make it easier to visualize and mark the location of each broken rib during surgical planning — thus minimizing incision size, operating time, recovery time, and further risk to infection. Our partnership with George Washington University has already delivered successful procedures in this area.

Designing a future-forward patient experience 

There is no question that AR and MR technologies are still in their infancy, and healthcare is still exploring potential use-case scenarios. For example, surgeons will likely within a few years, wear an AR/MR lens, like Microsoft’s HoloLens, while using arthroscopic devices, knowing in real-time where to direct their instruments and where to avoid. Medical students, fellows, and residents, as another example, may be able to learn complicated 3D anatomy using immersive, realistic images compared to what’s possible on the 2D computer screens or pieces of paper of today. 

While we’re only beginning this imaging transformation, examples like these nonetheless illustrate the potential impact of AR and MR technology on the patient experience. Using it to speed procedures may allow facilities to increase patient throughput while simultaneously improving care quality — which means we’ve helped patients at a time when they were most vulnerable. 

Medical vulnerability is a permanent part of the patient experience, but technology can fundamentally alter how we address it. By using AR and MR applications to reduce medical vulnerability, providers can make greater strides toward substantially improving the patient experience.

About Paul Jensen, President, Novarad

Paul Jensen is the President of Novarad. He brings over 25 years of experience in the global IT industry across finance, sales, marketing, and business development. Prior to leading Novarad, Paul found great success during 20 years of leadership at Microsoft. He is passionate and committed to Novarad’s mission of creating and using transformative technology to improve patient outcomes and reducing the impact of patient vulnerability in the world of medicine.