Sitting at a console, a surgeon places their hands on control sticks, translating their movement through a set of robotic arms that are able to make more delicate movements than human hands, with more dexterity than human wrists. Minimally invasive surgery becomes increasingly precise by becoming robotic.
Robotic surgery is an advance on laparoscopic technology. With traditional laparoscopy, a surgeon needs to inspect a 2-D video screen before moving their hands. With robotic surgery tools, surgeons view 3-D video and are able to perform surgical maneuvers without diverting their gaze.
With existing robotic surgery tools, like the da Vinci system, a surgeon’s control console is usually located within a few feet of a patient. But with the continued advance of virtual and augmented reality technology, it’s becoming possible for immersive 3-D consoles to support telemedicine—in more ways than one.
Virtual reality technology creates immersive experiences, often using 3-D video headsets that allow users to see and explore virtual environments—some fantastical and some hyper-realistic. Some systems incorporate finely tuned surround sound. Others incorporate haptic (or tactile) feedback, like an advanced form of how smartphone keyboards vibrate to imitate the pressing of physical keys. Users can control their actions in virtual environments by interacting with devices like gloves, treadmills or motion sensing cameras.
2016 will see virtual reality break ground in the consumer electronics market. Both Facebook’s Oculus headset and the Playstation VR are set to disrupt high-end video gaming. Meanwhile, Samung’s Gear VR will offer smartphone users a relatively inexpensive introduction to virtual reality, allowing users to play 3-D movies and games on their existing mobile devices.
Augmented Reality and Telemedicine
If virtual reality took centre stage at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), augmented reality was lurking in the wings. Augmented reality uses similar technology, but rather than creating fully immersive experiences, it seeks to enhance the here and now. At CES 2016, BMW introduced an augmented reality motorcycle helmet, which displays speedometer and fuel levels, meaning bikers don’t have to take their eyes off the road. While the technology itself is not particularly new, its mass markets horizons are. And as both virtual and augmented reality become more affordable and embraced, they will soon have serious implications for the advance of telemedicine.
Telemedicine is a loosely defined domain covering the provision of healthcare services from a distance, via the use of telecommunications technology. Telemedicine can include Skype meetings between physicians and specialists, remote patient monitoring programs, as well as more technically advanced procedures like remote surgery.
Remote surgery merges virtual reality and telemedicine, enabling surgeons to operate on far-away patients. Rather than fictional virtual environments, telemedical systems transmit real sensory data, enabling a physician in one location to perform clinical procedures in another. Surgeons, like McMaster University’s Dr. Mehran Anvari, have established telerobotic surgical systems to perform surgeries where the distance between doctor and patient approaches 1,500 km.
While telemedical robotics will continue to advance, performing surgeries from a distance is not the only healthcare application of virtual and augmented reality technology.
Virtual Telemedicine for Knowledge Transfer
Already, virtual reality technology has been implemented to assist in training various skilled professionals—from soldiers to astronauts to welders. Some of the same technology can also be used to aid medical knowledge transfer, helping rural physicians learn complex procedures more flexibily, while strengthening peer review and quality assurance procedures.
Virtual telemedicine can also help non-clinicians receive expert-led training for emergency procedures like CPR. Moreover, Dr. Avnari’s team has researched the use of telerobotics to assist non-physicians in performing surgeries in conditions mimicking outer space. These projects that pair research universities with space agencies are developing telemedical technology that could be incorporated into the first human missions to Mars.
Here on Earth, telemedicine will continue to help connect healthcare experts across the world to ensure that patients are able to receive world-leading care, wherever they may be.
Health IT and the Future of Medicine
As 21st century care continues to advance, it’s critical that new technology is underpinned by health IT best practices that are HIPAA-compliant and proven to improve patient outcomes.