Is Augmented Reality the Future of Surgery?

Cheaper. Faster. Safer. When it comes to transforming medical surgery, those are the targets. Augmented reality has the exciting potential to tick all three boxes.

Meet Rafael Grossmann…

He’s a self-proclaimed healthcare futurist.

He’s done multiple TEDx talks.

Back in the summer of 2013, Rafael J. Grossmann Zamora made history by becoming the first doctor ever to use Google Glass during live surgery. Back then, this luminary advocate of healthcare technology, eulogised about the potential for digital technology to transform surgical training and surgical performance.

“The role of Glass as a surgical and teaching tool is tremendous,” Grossmann explained in a 2013 interview with Forbes. “This is only the beginning. New applications – some we can’t even imagine yet – will help transform surgery and the surgical experience.”

Technologies from Google (Glass), headsets from the likes of Microsoft (HoloLens) and the dawn of digital contact lenses stand to revolutionise medicine. Safe in the knowledge that the applications of this burgeoning technology extend way beyond Pokémon Go, what can we expect from augmented reality in the operating theatre?

Innovations in theatre

With augmented reality delivered via technologies such as Google Glass or Microsoft HoloLens, surgeons will get unprecedented real-time insight on surgical procedures. The technology already exists to create a virtual overlay across the surgeon’s real-world view, guiding them through each step of surgery, for enhanced performance and patient safety.

Thanks to 3D modelling, augmented reality can also help to localise tumours – essentially giving surgeons x-ray vision, without the harmful radiation. Any area of the anatomy can be modelled, highlighted and located with pinpoint accuracy. As an aside – digital technologies like Google Glass also allow surgeons to easily capture mid-procedure photos that can be added to a patient’s medical records.

Training with augmented reality  

Surgery is a highly skilled profession. It takes a lot of training in a range of procedures to become competent – and that costs a lot of money. Not ideal for an NHS that is already cash-strapped.

Time was, that a lot of surgical training would take place in operating theatres, with students briefed and given a running commentary of procedures as surgeons worked. Yet this is happening less and less. Demands on the availability of operating theatres – and the time of surgeons – are too high.

To tackle that problem companies like Touch Surgery created hundreds of training simulations for mobile devices that allowed medical students to follow surgical procedures step-by-step. Flash forward to today and thanks to the advent of augmented reality, Touch Surgery has been able to make those simulations far more engaging, authentic and interactive. That’s great for learning outcomes.

In short: augmented reality is making it easier, cheaper and faster for trainees to train and qualified surgeons to practice their procedures. That’s great news for patient safety.

Could augmented reality change the world?

At your nearest hospital, dozens – maybe even hundreds – of operations take place every day. It’s a miracle of modern medicine. Yet 67% of the world’s population does not have access to safe surgery. That equates to just fewer than 5 billion people. Shocked? Wait for this: of the 313 million surgical procedures undertaken every year, only 6% occur in the poorest areas of the world – where over one-third of the world’s population lives. The key to redressing the balance, is to train surgeons in as cheap a way as possible.

Here to help is Proximie.

They say the best way to learn is to do. The second best way? Watch an expert. Proximie allows trainee surgeons to access live feeds of operations thousands of miles away, in real-time, via smartphone or tablet. Students can type questions to surgeons – which appear as an overlay on their mobile devices – who can answer via an audio link.

Proximie can also be used to guide surgeons in the developing world as they carry out their procedures. It has the ability to connect in real-time a trainee surgeon with an experienced consultant, who can guide the trainee through the procedure using voice, or text-based overlays. It’s revolutionary stuff and it could transform medicine in the developing world.

The (augmented) reality of sterilisation

There are clear sterilisation challenges when it comes to using augmented reality technologies in theatre. Headsets, for example, are a source of contamination – and are unlikely to respond well to an anti-microbial scrub down. Voice control, gesture tracking and foot pedals are being touted as potential options to square the circle. Even something as simple as a remote control housed in a sterile bag would work.

“This is only the beginning…”

Grossmann was right when he predicted in 2013 that his use of Google Glass was merely the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the positive influence digital technology could have on medicine. With the increasingly widespread adoption of augmented reality among surgeons and trainees, the future of surgery has the potential to be safer and more efficient than ever before.

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