Hospitals and medical centers continue to push the envelope on using new technologies to enhance patient care and increase the productivity of the overall facility.
While the medical field is embracing new technologies to help doctors help their patients, the emerging sophistication of these technologies is not always plug-and-play. One of the latest buzzwords in the health care industry is augmented reality (AR). Yet most medical professionals are finding barriers to success. Much like the multiple-year effort it took to migrate paper medical records to their super-functional electronic formats (Electronic Health Records), many experts across multiple domains need to align on methodologies and use cases before AR can become mainstream.
A Perspective from the Medical Side
A recent panel discussion in Dallas brought to light some of the challenges that the healthcare industry has and how 5G-based wireless connectivity might be able to address some of the issues. The panel included brain surgeon Dr. Kalil Abdullah, who practices and teaches aspiring surgeons at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Dr. Abdullah shared with the attendees a sample case – a video showing something being removed from the brain cavity – did I mention we were at a 5G panel discussion? The footage brought an uneasy stir in the room until he asked those still present to answer a question: can you identify the part of the brain displayed on the screen by the surgical microscope? Aside from a few chuckles, the audience offered no responses.
Dr. Abdullah’s following point, though, brought laser-focus to the case for augmented reality. He stated that even a highly experienced brain surgeon with years of training could not answer this question without more information. He offered that equipping the surgical microscope with technologies like AR can overlay information – like case details and progress – on the live video. In addition to the obvious training benefits, surgeons viewing an AR-assisted procedure would have all the necessary information to understand what is happening at any point in time in a surgical procedure. Brain surgeons, according to Dr. Abdullah, plan and train intensely and develop highly detailed protocols for their cases; by linking additional information via AR into the field of vision, surgeons could develop – and follow – a clear plan of attack on each surgical case.
The challenge in making this vision possible is the availability of and close collaboration with a set of technologies that can:
- Connect the surgical microscopes to a centralized medical application,
- Transfer large amounts of data created by live video feeds to that application,
- Analyze those live video feeds (in real-time) to identify targeted objects in the video,
- Pull out the information to overlay for that object in the video, and
- Send the overlay information back to the surgical microscope to create the augmented experience
…and, all of this must happen wirelessly. It has a lot of moving parts for a mission-critical application.
A Perspective from the Technology Side
5G-connected augmented reality sounds like it has good promise to help make it possible. 5G’s low latency connection can support the AR-equipped surgical microscope in a highly effective wireless operating suite. However, like the surgeon walking in on the case and trying to figure out the current status, the 5G panel pointed out that the industry needs more details and discussions to articulate how 5G can be of benefit in the operating room (OR). They postulated that AR in the OR would likely require edge computing to ensure the low latency connections required by AR-enabled microscopes. Multi-access edge computing (MEC), in general, is becoming an integral part of the 5G technology ecosystem to enable mission-critical applications that require ultra-fast response time. While MEC will help run applications quickly and 5G will transfer the data quickly, the alignment gap I see is the availability of the 5G connectivity inside the operating room. The good news is that the industry leaders in the standards bodies, vendor community, and service providers acknowledge this gap, and are working towards a variety of solutions to bridge it. Some claim they have found the magic bullet, while others claim that they are seeking gold in the thin air.
While I do not foresee undergoing any surgery soon, I believe that equipping surgeons with augmented reality during surgical procedures would help them treat me better if I ever need one. When AR-assisted surgery becomes possible, I will not hesitate to let surgeons leverage this new capability during my treatment. In the meantime, the medical experts and global technology authorities need to get together to understand, define, and align on the requirements that can enable low-latency AR-based applications in the medical professions.