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Augmented reality helping doctors perform surgeries with more precision

Augmented reality is being used to help doctors with spine surgeries
Posted at 12:20 PM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 12:20:50-05

Augmented reality (AR) is now being used to help doctors be more precise in their practices. But at first glance, the technology involved might look like a strange headset. But then, you notice the camera and when you put it on, it projects images in your field of vision.

AR is technology that superimposes a computer-generated image into your view of the world. It’s now being used for surgery.

“What we’re talking about is using augmented reality to make spine surgery and the placement of hardware safer and more precise during surgery,” said Dr. Brent Kimball, spine surgeon at Sky Ridge Medical Center.

He recently completed his first surgery using AR.

“Essentially having, and it sounds kind of crazy, but x-ray vision through the patient’s skin,” he explained. “You can actually see where the spine bones are through the skin.”

For doctors, it makes all the difference. Instead of looking up at a screen and looking back down during surgery, it’s all right there in their field of view.

“I think it allows the surgery to go faster, safer, reduces blood loss which means faster recovery, reduced infection,” Dr. Kimball said.

This specific technology was created by Augmedics. The FDA gave this system the green light for spinal surgery back in December 2019, and since, it’s been used in about 300 surgical procedures.

But doctors say there are many other ways to use the technology.

“We’re really getting to that tipping point where technology is becoming the standard of care for joint replacements,” said Dr. Jonathan Vigdorchik, orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

In January, he completed the first AR total knee replacement in the U.S.

“Once they get a CT scan, we create a 3D model of their knee and that's loaded into a computer system where I can virtually do their surgery before we even start,” Dr. Vigdorchik said. “It’s alerting me every step of the way to make sure I did it exactly as planned, avoiding any pitfalls.”

That means more accuracy every step of the way.

“A very big focus of augmented reality manufacturers in general is oriented toward entertainment. However there are all these applications that would increase the productivity and enhance the quality of care,” said Amitabh Varshney, computer scientist at the University of Maryland.

Varshney and Dr. Sarah Murthi work together at the Maryland Blended Reality Center, researching how AR and health care can work together.

“There’s always risk with any medical intervention, but I think there's so much less risk with this particular kind of intervention where you’re just seeing more images, better,” said Dr. Murthi, trauma surgeon at Baltimore Shock Trauma.

They’re looking at how to use AR outside of the operating room walls as well.

“I don’t understand why we are still looking at things on a flat screen and why people are turning away to look at a screen. I don’t understand why they are displayed in a way that's not anatomically relevant,” Dr. Murthi said.

They don’t have data just yet on how this technology will increase patient care, but as augmented reality is integrated in more procedures, researchers will have a better idea.

“This, I see as becoming common place. It's just a matter of time before people only want to use this augmented reality component,” Dr. Kimball said.