By Jaydeep Saha, Contributing Writer, HCL Technologies Ltd. 

 

After months trialing techniques using virtual reality (VR) projections based on CT and MRI scans, doctors in Rio Janeiro, Brazil successfully separated conjoined twins using the technology. The surgery was assisted by doctors operating out of Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.

In a world first, surgeons in separate countries wore VR headsets and operated in the same “virtual reality room” together during the 27-hour operation.

Speaking about the VR aspect of the surgery, Dr Noor ul Owase Jeelani – who physically led the surgery – told the PA news agency: “It’s just wonderful. It’s really great to see the anatomy and do the surgery before you actually put the children at any risk. You can imagine how reassuring that is for the surgeons. In some ways these operations are considered the hardest of our time, and to do it in virtual reality was just really man-on-Mars stuff.”

Virtual reality in healthcare

This is not the first time VR has been used in healthcare. In November 2021, a six-month-old boy underwent a complex surgerythanks to VR.

He was born with a condition where the growth lines in his skull had fused too early. The condition — known as Sagittal Synostosis — meant that as his brain grew, the skull couldn’t grow sideways to accommodate it. Instead, it expanded to the front and back, distorting the head shape.

The surgery to correct this problem was extremely dangerous, but Great Ormond Street Hospital presented an alternative solution – a ground-breaking new artificial intelligence (AI) platform that helps predict the outcome of life-changing operations in virtual reality.

The immersive environment allowed them to see, from all angles, a reconstruction of the boy’s head generated from a CT scan. Overlaid on top of this, in green, was what his head would look like after the reshaping procedure. The algorithms needed to create these images were made possible by harnessing data from 60 previous operations on different people.

The technology not only allowed the boy’s parents to see and understand what differences the procedure would make; they were also encouraged to suggest potential modifications to the surgeon.

Dr Jeelani said with the technology, the couple got a clearer picture of what the future held for them. “What I would like to see as a surgeon in 10, or perhaps 20 years’ time, is that most surgical practice is done this way where the control, and the power, is very much given to the parents and the patients,” he said.

While the technology was used to treat this one particular condition, it is hoped it can be applied to many different sorts of surgery in the future. “What we’ve seen here is essentially proof of principle,” said Dr Jeelani and added that: “If you take a condition, an art form, and make it granular enough that you can study it and put it on engineering and AI platforms then you can actually predict the future with a reasonable amount of accuracy.”

The VR opportunity in healthcare and beyond

Immersive workspaces are collaborative work environments, that convey a sense of real-world presence, using VR, augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR).

These experiences are delivered using head-mounted displays and provide enhanced opportunities for virtual office, meetings, presentation delivery, product demos, and telecommuting.

These virtual workplaces facilitate richer, more natural collaboration, and knowledge sharing.

The adoption of AR-VR technologies has gained massive demand and popularity across industries such as healthcare, gaming, entertainment, marketing, e-commerce, and retail. Research stated that between 2019 and 2026, the AR-VR market will gain a market value of more than $170+ billion.

Tech giants such as HCL Technologies have already started to invest in these technologies, like HTC Vive, Meta Oculus, and Microsoft HoloLens 2.

In HCL Tech’s case, it has not only been training its employees using HTC Vive headsets, but as a technology leader in healthcare consulting, it is also helping drive innovation and continuously improving best practices in healthcare. Its enterprise medical services have helped healthcare organizations meet their goals through technology solutions — improving patient care experience, optimizing health outcomes, and reducing healthcare costs — while maximizing their return on investment.

Other technology innovations transforming healthcare

Beyond VR, there are numerous other digital technologies transforming the healthcare industry.

5G: 5G can enable doctors equipped with VR glasses the ability to receive data in real-time on a patient’s vital signs as they’re travelling to the hospital in an ambulance, including blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, and temperature.

AI: AI was instrumental in the rapid rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. Its deployment allowed for the large-scale virtual screening for potential drugs. The technology is also playing a key role in improving cancer screening, accelerating drug discovery for cancer patients, while improving cancer surveillance.

Wearable devices: Since 2018, Huawei has been working with more than 80 hospitals in China on the world’s largest heart-health research project. With the consent of the research subjects, anonymized data from nearly 3.1 million people has been collected. The smart wearable devices can collect signals from users in real time, identify abnormal heart rhythms or high blood pressure with AI, and upload the results to Huawei Research. The end goal is to enable healthcare workers to make smarter decisions for patients based on the data coming from their smart devices. For example, Huawei has launched a medical-grade blood pressure watch by the end of the year.

Cloud AI: The role of cloud AI is increasing in healthcare. It pushes information about high-risk people to the remote medical management platform of the hospitals Huawei is working with, so that healthcare workers can take appropriate measures.