Research Shows How Augmented Reality Can Help Rookie Doctors in War Zones

Augmented reality has the potential to save lives. 

by James Dennin
Unsplash / Marcelo Leal

Augmented reality is already being introduced in a ton of interesting contexts, from gaming and manufacturing to telecommunication and retail. Now, some researchers at Purdue University think that the tech is there for AR to assist humans with something vastly more daunting: Helping rookie doctors save lives in areas where it’s hard to get people medical care.

This new method involves pairing augmented reality with the expertise of more experienced surgeons to help guide the more inexperienced doctors that happen to be on the ground. The team presented their research at the Military Health System Research Symposium late last month.

“The most critical challenge is to provide surgical expertise into the battlefield when it is most required,” Juan Wachs a professor of industrial engineering, who led the project team, said in a statement. “Even without having highly experienced medical leaders physically co-located in the field, with this technology we can help minimize the number of casualties while maximizing treatment at the point of injury.”

But of course, helping army medics may be only one of many applications for this combination of teaching techniques and emerging technology.

The new method using an augmented reality headset to beam footage to a surgeon mentor while not having to divert attention from the patient. 

Edgar Rojas Muñoz/Purdue University

How Augmented Reality Can Help Save Lives

It’s not unusual for medical professionals to have to learn things on the job, but pairing inexperienced doctors with experienced surgeons to guide them isn’t always feasible, even if you’re not in a war zone. A recent study from the Association of American Medical Colleges estimated that the United States could face a shortage of up to 120,000 physicians by the year 2030. Educating doctors is incredibly expensive, and the U.S. population is growing (and aging) steadily.

So this isn’t simply an application that could help people in far-flung wars or refugee zones. It could also assist in providing medical care to patients in rural areas where it’s much harder to get to a hospital. Rural communities are notably home to about 20 percent of the population, according to a Stanford review of public health data, but only 10 percent of the physicians.

“There is an unmet need for technology that connects health care mentees in rural areas with experienced mentors,” said Edgar Rojas Muñoz, another researcher who worked on the study. “The current use of a telestrator in these situations is inefficient.”

The new Purdue method could be used in a number of contexts, from battlefields to rescue zones and natural disasters. 

Flickr / Official U.S. Navy Imagery

There are a few ways that AR comes into play. The headsets allow a mentor — wherever they are — to see everything that the rookie surgeon is doing without the latter having to explain things, ask questions, or otherwise get distracted. AR can also help make it easier for the mentee to see the next steps in a procedure without having to take their attention off of the patient.

In short, it’s like a very, very high tech method of the scene that’s in at least half of the action movies where a character enters labor at the worst possible time and a doctor has to talk our grizzled hero through the delivery over the phone. The key is that by making it easier for surgeons and medical professionals to learn on the job while also keeping their focus on the patient, you could theoretically coach surgeons through ever-more complicated procedures no matter where they are. Very cool.

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