Automation and new technologies are here to stay. More and more sectors are joining the era of change, and the health sector is no exception.
Life expectancy is steadily increasing. The average life expectancy in the European Union is 77.8 for men and 83.3 for women. It is, therefore, necessary to turn to the digitalization of the sector to meet the high demand for healthcare services.
With the Covid-19 crisis, the threat posed by healthcare saturation and the importance of turning to technologies to optimize patient service became more evident.
Digitizing the healthcare sector will lead to numerous benefits in several sectors.
On the one hand, it streamlines administrative procedures by analyzing massive amounts of information with Big Data.
On the other hand, it opens the way to virtual appointments, protecting the primary care system from becoming overwhelmed and enabling workers and senior citizens to attend medical appointments without needing to travel or ask for time off work.
But that’s not all; technology in the healthcare sector is far more ambitious. It speeds up drug innovation and precision medicine tailored to individual patient characteristics.
Similarly, gaming for mental health or patients with reduced mobility, applications that promote healthy lifestyles, and simulations for people with disabilities are just some trends in healthcare digitization.
Although technology offers advantages, it is essential not to dehumanize healthcare. A great deal of hospitalized patients’ recovery is due to the care they receive from healthcare staff.
Moreover, some members of society are not comfortable with technology and find it difficult to use devices as part of their treatment and healing processes.
That is why it is crucial to harness technology in the healthcare sector in a way that complements the human factor.
New technologies in healthcare: a change in reality
Among all the emerging technologies that exist in the healthcare sector, we must make special mention of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), which are at the pinnacle of innovations in recent years.
According to Trend Map created by Funció TIC Salut Social, by 2019, 25% of health centers used virtual reality, with 14.2% intending to bring augmented reality and 8.9% using mixed reality.
These technologies provide new diagnostic, patient care, and medical training staff options, broaden traditional medicine’s horizons, and achieve unimaginable objectives just a few years ago.
The importance they are acquiring is such that by 2025 virtual and augmented reality in Europe is expected to be worth 2,893.1 million dollars compared to 2018, when their value was 311.6 million dollars, showing the exponential growth of these resources.
So far, remote appointments are among the most widespread uses of technology in the healthcare sector. The pandemic forced the health sector to introduce virtual appointments, which have become a permanent feature because of their many advantages.
Remote appointments reduce specialists’ waiting lists and prevent healthcare bottlenecks caused by appointments not requiring an in-person meeting.
However, while such appointments can be highly effective when examining patients, virtual appointments are useless.
Virtual and augmented reality are changing all this by giving doctors a closer look at their patients and a more detailed view of their pathologies.
All these emerging technologies are heralding future trends that will change many people’s physical and mental health.
What if health workers could simulate high-risk situations to boost their chances of success further down the line? And what if disabled patients could recover their abilities through virtual rehabilitation?
Applications for virtual reality
have been tried and tested for years, particularly in video games. However, in recent years there has been exponential growth in its use in other industries, including the health sector.
Virtual reality is a representation of a simulated environment that a person can interact with, placing them in a three-dimensional experience.
Until recently, there had been little in-depth research into applications for virtual reality in healthcare, but that has changed.
How physicians use virtual reality in the healthcare sector
According to the Report on Virtual Reality in Spain (Informe de Realidad Virtual en España), the health sector accounts for 12% of all virtual reality projects in Spain.
The main reason is that it is tremendously advantageous for both patients and workers in the healthcare setting. We can divide VR applications into five main areas:
Mental health treatments
Virtual reality is often used to treat mental health conditions. Psychiatrists use it for virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), which is highly effective for treating phobias, attention deficit disorder, and stress management.
When it comes to phobias, virtual reality can be used to gradually expose patients to the factors that trigger their fears, reassuring patients with the confidence of knowing that what they are experiencing is not real.
VR can also be a coadjuvant in treating patients suffering from stress or depression. Virtual reality can create ideal surroundings for meditation. It is also a treatment option for patients with disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Virtual reality has proven effective in the mental health field because it is practical, can be customized to the needs of individual patients, and patients prefer it over other therapies.
Virtual reality can help rehabilitate patients who become disabled or have had a stroke by exposing them to situations they will encounter when they leave the hospital.
For those patients who must use a wheelchair, thanks to VR, they will be able to speed up rehabilitation through reward systems, interacting with simulated environments to learn to cope with this new reality before physically facing this change.
The same is true for those who have lost a sense, such as sight. In these cases, the patient can interact with virtual scenarios where sound is the main feature to adapt to their new reality.
Diagnosis and treating diseases
Diagnostics is an area where virtual reality has much to offer. VR technologies perform functional tests to obtain data needed for early assessment and diagnosis, particularly for diagnosing neurodegenerative diseases.
Tests like these provide healthcare professionals with information about the severity of the patient’s condition on which to base their diagnosis and customize this to the patient’s individual needs.
Once doctors make a diagnosis and assign treatment, virtual reality can continue to mitigate pain or reduce the amount of anesthesia needed, as it allows the patient to more easily abstract from the procedure.
Training for healthcare professionals
Healthcare professional training is another area where this technology can be beneficial.
Doctors can use VR to simulate critical situations to assess the best course of action, improving healthcare professionals’ training without endangering patients’ lives.
In the case of high-risk operations, virtually performing procedures numerous times increases the likelihood of success in the real world. Physicians can also use VR to study human organs in great detail.
Augmented reality gains popularity
According to a report by GlobalData, the augmented reality market is expected to be worth an estimated $76 billion by 2030, overtaking the virtual reality market.
AR makes it possible to visualize the real environment through a device, adding virtual elements to this physical reality. AR is already familiar to many and has even become one of the foundations of the metaverse.
You can also use augmented reality on mobile devices or gadgets such as Google Glass, which shows your surroundings while superimposing objects.
Doctors also use it to locate veins by placing a device on the skin to show the exact location of the veins.
Many other applications have already been launched to improve people’s quality of life, such as automated defibrillator locators to address urgent cardiac problems or promote research into the human body.
Mixed reality: a fusion of virtual and augmented reality
Finally, there are use cases of mixed reality, which is nothing more than the union between virtual and augmented reality.
As VR and AR have become more popular, a hybrid has been developed where physical objects interact in a virtual environment.
Mixed reality uses an autonomous device to build a real-time environment where avatars and virtual objects interact with physical elements and characters in real-time.
One of the most exciting applications of mixed reality is the possibility of third parties participating in operations anywhere in the world. Thanks to the recognition of spatial vision, an external physician could participate in an intervention by obtaining a recreation of the situation in real-time.
Mixed reality uses can also be found in 3D imaging, such as ultrasounds, where mothers could get much more accurate details of their babies, or live broadcasts for student training.
Virtual, augmented, and mixed reality all hold great promise for future medicine.
While the advances made so far have already left us speechless, what is yet to come will be no less so.
The advantages of using these technologies in the healthcare sector are two-fold because, in addition to improving patients’ quality of life, it also opens up the possibility of saving lives that would have a different future without these tools.
Researchers and ICT experts have done the groundwork. It remains to be seen how hospitals and health centers will harness these tools to reap the benefits.
The healthcare revolution that awaits is intriguing and motivating for doctors when it comes to saving more lives and improving patient health.