Extended reality could be the next frontier in health care

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

Imagine being able to virtually take a medical student through the steps of assessing and caring for a patient with an obstructed airway. 

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Or being a psychiatrist who can lead a group therapy session in the metaverse, with patients joining from anywhere.

What if you could see and understand parts of the heart not usually visible to the eye?

Or if you could better explain a procedure, treatment or recovery process to a patient by showing them the information in a virtual world, empowering them to make more informed choices.

These things are already happening and medicine is just on the forefront of extended reality—commonly called XR. The possibilities of the technology are nearly endless across the specialties experts said during an AMA Future of Health Immersion Program webinar that explores the burgeoning field. Experts addressed the state of health care XR and presenters shared examples of how virtual reality and augmented technology are being used in medical settings.

Bringing together people who are using XR in medicine, creating new ways to apply it and solidifying it as a field are a few of the next big steps that need to take place, said Mark Zhang, DO, associate chief medical information officer at The Brigham and Women’s Hospital and medical director of the Brigham Digital Innovation Hub. 

Extended reality is the overarching term used to talk about augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality tools and it is going on in health care more than you likely realize. 

When Dr. Zhang began looking two and a half years ago, he discovered more than 50 XR projects going on across five Mass General Brigham sites. There was more than $20 million in research funding for the projects.

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Most who were working on projects had no idea about the other projects taking place and Dr. Zhang was part of a team that created a space for those interested in XR to come together. 

“This siloing in this burgeoning field really benefits from the creation of a community,” he said. 

He is spearheading efforts to solidify the field nationally, as well. A year ago, he founded the American Medical Extended Reality Association. The interdisciplinary nonprofit has nearly 300 members and aims to “advance the science and practice of medical extended reality through advancing care delivery, scientific investigation, innovation, education, advocacy and community,” said Dr. Zhang, a palliative medicine specialist.

The association is also establishing a peer-reviewed journal to further advance the field. 

Frank Sculli, MSE, co-founder and CEO for BioDigital Inc. shared examples of his company’s 3D, interactive software platform that allows users to explore and visualize health information, including information for patient education and medical student training.

Nam Jin Kim, MD, medical director of the surgical network at Brazil’s Albert Einstein Hospital Israelita showed viewers how his institution uses XR to train surgeons from around the world to do robotic surgery. 

The surgeons-in-training gain more skills and ask more questions while using the interactive XR technology rather than standing in a crowded operating room and taking in the information passively, Dr. Kim said.

The discussion with these panelists about XR continues online. Sign up free on the AMA Physician Innovation Network and post questions and comments in the discussion thread.