Believe it or not, augmented reality (AR) is much more than just Pokémon Go.
While the insanely popular game showed the potential of augmented reality adoption on a mass scale, and still maintains a large user base, it was mostly seen as a flash in the pan.
But what if AR could do more than allow you to catch Charmanders? What if it could help to save lives?
Healthcare is about to undergo an explosion of demand. The world’s population is aging rapidly, and life expectancy continues to go up, meaning more healthcare is needed over a longer period of time than 40 or 50 years ago.
And the segment of people aged 60 or older is growing faster than any other age group.
The healthcare system in the United States, notoriously complex and difficult to navigate, will be put to the ultimate stress test in the coming decades. Something will have to change, and augmented reality is likely one of the key technologies that will usher us into the next age of care.
Here are some of the ways AR may alter when, how and why we receive healthcare in the future:
The doctor will see you now
Running a private medical practice can run upwards of $800,000 per year, and that’s just the baseline costs. For a patient, a single visit to the emergency room can cost you $3,000, and that’s if you don’t end up staying for very long.
Healthcare costs are only going to rise as the population ages, for both patients and practitioners, but AR can help to ease these costs by utilizing existing technology to reduce the need for physical visits.
Virtual reality is still cost prohibitive for most people, but 73% of those aged 50-64 already own a smartphone. Being able to open an app on your phone and see a doctor right in your living room immediately changes how we think about healthcare. Perhaps the app could display health records and vital statistics as the doctor reviews your symptoms. The camera of the phone can be used to show the doctor any visible markers, making a virtual diagnosis possible.
Particularly for individuals with ambulatory or mobility problems, an AR doctor visit is not only easier on the wallet, but reduces the risk of additional injury that comes with what others might view as a simple office visit.
While we’ll always need the human intimacy of physicians, it’s possible to imagine a world in the not-too-distant future where some doctors’ offices are completely virtual.
Physical therapy
Augmented reality is already making significant headway in the physical therapy field, improving patient outcomes, and in some cases, providing very promising results.
For some amputees, they continue to feel pain, even though the limb is no longer there. Phantom limb pain can be chronic and severe, and it’s proven to be extremely difficult to treat.
But a recent study showed that augmented reality may provide relief. In the study, patients used augmented reality to see their limbs as if they were still there. Having felt the pain for an average of 10 years, and most of them trying at least four treatment methods previously, the augmented reality treatment provided a 50% reduction in pain after just 12 sessions.
AR provides promise in nearly any rehabilitation method for any injury or symptom, by using visualization to activate parts of the brain that trigger pain reduction, rebuild neural pathways and promote personalized behaviors that aid in treatment.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics, The New York Times used augmented reality to show fans the intricate details of the complex athletic feats being completed. Using a smartphone, you can see a figure skater in your living room, walk around them, note the position of their arms and how it affects their spin.
Physical therapists could use this same technology to show patients what’s happening inside their body, so they can understand how to properly perform exercises or modify their movements. It’s easy for someone to tell you that a disc is bulging in your back, but seeing where it is, how it’s pushing on other nerves, and how the exercises you’re doing can alleviate symptoms, you’re much more likely to follow through.
X-ray vision
Remember those x-ray glasses sold in the back of comic books? Yeah, they didn’t work, but surgeons may soon have a new augmented reality tool that delivers on that original promise.
Already being tested on mannequins, surgeons may soon have the ability to see a patient’s entire body mapped out before them without ever needing to make an incision.
It’s a form of x-ray vision that would allow surgeons to see internal organs, make notes and plan the procedure, making some surgeries that currently require long incisions much less difficult for both the surgeon and patient.
While still in its early stages, this technology could also be applied to MRIs and x-rays. Most MRIs look like meaningless blobs to patients, and digging through images to find what’s needed eats up time and resources for physicians. But some apps are being developed that would allow a doctor to simply hold a mobile device over the patient’s body and view the corresponding MRI or x-ray images in real-time.
It’s not quite a tricorder from Star Trek, but it’s pretty impressive.
Taking the next step
Healthcare has been notoriously immune to the same kind of disruption other industries have seen in recent years, but disruption and innovation must accelerate to meet the coming demands of a greying population.
Augmented reality is only one area where investment and innovation may bring much-needed, high-quality treatment to people who otherwise may not be able to afford it, or would have to travel to receive it.
Everyone needs healthcare, and fostering regional partnerships across technology, healthcare and government can accelerate innovation, whether utilizing augmented reality or another emerging technology.
And besides, who wouldn’t want real-life x-ray glasses?