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Virtual Reality Becoming Reality?

Virtual reality is by no means a new technology, but recent technological developments have given it new life and attention, which is now enabling it to spread from gaming and consumer markets into industries such as manufacturing, construction and healthcare. However, how hard will the move into healthcare be? How can we use virtual reality in healthcare, and what are the challenges for adoption?

The Current State

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is still far from mainstream market adoption. The concept of performing advanced visualisation and complex image analysis for diagnosis in an open 3D space, with all the tools and functionalities available at the touch of a virtual button or voice commands, might seem incredibly attractive to physicians today, compared to staring at an old fashioned flat 2D computer screen and trying to imagine a three-dimensional structure. With basic technology requirements such as processing power, VR and AR goggles, computer vision and analytics far more accessible today, due to costs being driven down by high competition in the gaming industry, use in healthcare and clinical settings is starting to gain traction. However, for VR to achieve more widespread adoption, other barriers must be overcome: the real benefits of the technology need to be established; policy makers and government agencies need to define the ground rules for clinical use and reimbursement; end-users of the technology need to be on-board and working closely with the industry to help develop it to fit the needs and customs of real-world clinics, instead of a technology centres or innovation labs.

Pikachu Showing the Way to the Clinic – Augmented Reality in Healthcare

The mid-term way to adoption of virtual reality may be through AR, where the virtual world is overlaid on top of the real world. AR for surgical applications and image guided therapy, which layers 3D scan images, segmentations and measurements on top of the patient directly in the interventional suite, are likely candidates for the first products to be adopted in the mainstream. Initial products using tablet or computer screen and camera held in front of the patient have been tested for surgical navigation and have demonstrated higher accuracy in spine surgery in recent studies, something showcased last year with the launch of Philips Azurion hybrid interventional product. However, with Microsoft HoloLens and other companies in consumer, gaming and manufacturing industries developing more lightweight glasses that can be worn to support AR, in a short time AR glasses will be more widely available for trials in new clinical use cases. For example, Novarad’s OpenSight uses HoloLens goggles for adding MR and CT imaging over the patient in real time for surgical applications and preoperative planning. A notable AR startup is ApoQlar based in Hamburg at Philips Health Innovation Port, who are developing and testing their Virtual Surgery Instructor (VSI) for AR in the operating room for neurosurgery, also using HoloLens goggles for visualisation.

That is not to say all products will follow the same AR pathway. EchoPixel and RealView Imaging are using holographic imaging, either using EchoPixel’s True 3D Viewer workstation and glasses for visualisation of anatomical structures, or RealView’s Medical Holography technology for inspecting holographic images for surgical planning or diagnosis without glasses at all. However, at the moment these technologies don’t offer the merged virtual-patient view with measurements and segmentations directly on the patient, most useful for interventional radiology and surgery. Instead holographic applications may be more useful for non-procedural use cases, such as diagnosis and surgical planning.

Other VR uses in Healthcare

We are also seeing significant development outside of the radiology lab and surgical suite, particularly with VR being used in training, rehearsal and simulation for healthcare professionals’ education. Companies such as ImmersiveTouch with their MissionRehearsal VR training platform, and UK based Touch Surgery with a surgical simulation platform and applications for multiple operations from hip surgery to dentistry, have been making significant progress. The latter also recently landed $20M additional VC funding for their new tool Go Surgery, backed by London based Balderton Capital and San Francisco based VR specialist venture capital firm 8VC.

The use of VR for patients is also under development. Companies such as Firsthand Technology for VR pain and stress relief use VR imagery and sounds to relieve chronic pain, and Tel Aviv based VRPhysio have created a clinical VR solution to help with physical therapy for whiplash and other conditions. VRPhysio uses a VR headset to engage patients in physical therapy in a fun way without the need for a human physical therapist to perform the exercises, while at the same time collecting data from an internal FDA approved device for tracking improvements to be reviewed by the physician. Also, at the interface between patient and provider, TeraRecon’s HoloPack Portal provides 3D image viewing using Microsoft HoloLens to be used for educational or patient communication purposes, as an alternative to 3D printing solutions.

Building the Foundation

Why are the other uses in healthcare relevant when discussing VR in advanced visualisation and diagnostics? Because all these applications will help physicians, radiologists and healthcare providers become used to VR and communicating with a computer using hand gestures and voice control, a massive change from today. Therefore, broader adoption in healthcare, from surgeons using AR in surgical planning and interventional radiology, medical student using VR as part of their education, and patients using VR and AR for physical therapy and for viewing the disorder before an operation, will help to build interest and comfort with the technology. While this should help widen the availability, reduce cost, and increase user comfort with VR, the role of the radiologist in the adoption of VR still remains unclear at this stage, as there is little to support how it improves efficiency and accuracy of diagnosis. However, early buy-in from diagnosing physicians can help in developing applications according to their needs, while also increasing the confidence and comfort-level with a more immersive experience. This will be of particular use in diagnostic applications that require a high degree of spatial visualisation such as cardiology, colonoscopy and oncology, where a more intuitive visual inspection could be beneficial in terms of efficiency and diagnostic accuracy.

So, will Virtual Reality ever Become Reality?

Despite the technology being very interesting for healthcare applications, and a high level of specialist venture capital and government funding is backing development of the technology, there are quite a few hurdles to overcome for vendors before adoption in radiology for advanced visualisation and diagnostics:

  • Reduce the psychological barrier by increasing exposure in and around the healthcare segment.
  • Improve the user friendliness of VR and AR applications, and develop them in association with physicians and radiologist to directly target their needs and reduce the implementation burden.
  • Work hard on the business case to prove why VR and AR can help save time and money and increase accuracy in diagnosis.

In a healthcare system increasingly focused on value based healthcare, the last point will be especially important in order to win over healthcare IT decision makers; their focus will be on tools and applications that make sense from a financial and clinical perspective. Given that artificial intelligence and business analytics are already ahead vying to be the next investment for healthcare providers, virtual reality may experience a rough start, unless technology vendors can add it to existing systems as a feature for applications in cardiology, colonoscopy or oncology, where the spatial view benefits can be easily recognised and valued.

Related Market Report

Advanced Visualisation and Viewing IT – World – 2017” provides a highly detailed, data-centric analysis of the world market for Advanced Visualisation and Viewing IT. Key features include market size estimates, annual growth rate forecasts for 2017 to 2021 and vendor market share analysis.

About Signify Research

Signify Research is an independent supplier of market intelligence and consultancy to the global healthcare technology industry. Our major coverage areas are Healthcare IT, Medical Imaging and Digital Health. Our clients include technology vendors, healthcare providers and payers, management consultants and investors. Signify Research is headquartered in Cranfield, UK.

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