By bringing Augmented Reality (AR) to everyday life, Pokemon GO(opens in a new tab), the wildly successful AR game, shared a powerful technology with the world. For gaming, AR has a lot of potential. But what shows an even greater potential is how AR can be used in applications for orthopedic technology and how AR can improve the way orthopedic surgeons and doctors treat patients.

In addition to AR, we are already seeing more emerging technologies take flight in the healthcare industry. From simulated surgeries to AR technology overlay, prepare to see new immersive technologies in the OR.

Pokemon GO has popularized AR and improved this technology. So what else can we learn from this emerging technology trend:<

Augmented Reality in Surgery

Augmented Reality(opens in a new tab)(AR) is a technology that uses visual, auditory, haptic, somatosensory, and olfactory enhancements to create an immersive and interactive experience for the user. This technology will combine real-world visuals into a semi-virtual world.

Building off of computer-assisted navigation systems, AR technology could revolutionize specialty areas like orthopedic medicine.<

Whereas video gamers are entering into simulated worlds for virtual conquest, researchers and orthopedic surgeons can use this same technology to visualize the human body’s anatomic structure, all without a scalpel. Anatomical structures that were once viewed only through 2D can be visualized in a 3D mapped format.

Using AR in the operating room (OR) allows digital images and pre-operative information(opens in a new tab) to be at the surgeon’s fingertips in the real world. With AR, orthopedic surgeons can visualize what’s going on in the body without requiring an X-ray. They can overlay relevant and critical information about the patient’s body by looking at them.

This viewpoint can show surgeons the bones, tissues, and physiological function inside the body using far less invasive techniques than others. Surgeons can determine pre-operatively locations of incisions, bone markers and use real-time medical imaging for proper spatial alignment in surgery.

Virtual Reality (VR) Simulator for Orthopedic Surgery

Like AR, virtual reality (VR) offers researchers and orthopedic surgeons similar benefits. VR is a slightly older technology compared to AR; pilots train on VR flight simulators (opens in a new tab)before they take off on their first flight in the Boeing 757.

In this same vein, VR technology could be used by orthopedic surgeons to learn how to operate on a virtual patient in a surgery simulator. While this idea has been around for decades, VR technologies are finally catching up, so it soon can become a reality.

The most recent haptic technology provides touch-feedback to surgeons(opens in a new tab) the ability to see, hear, and feel their virtual patients. This kind of touch-feedback system provides orthopedics with a near-real-life simulation where they can feel the sensation of pressing a scalpel against muscle or the power of drilling into the bone.

These environments are crucial for training burgeoning surgeons, and it grants them a safe space to do so. Instead of observing a live surgery and then learning through assisting, new surgeons can get their hands on operating tools in a virtual classroom environment.

Virtual or augmented training environments like VR and AR might speed up the training process, allowing more orthopedic surgeons to train more quickly as medical doctors. It also provides more testing grounds so that orthopedic surgeons can better serve the general public through better preparation and more thorough testing.

Robotic Surgery: Inspired by Sci-Fi

The use of robotics in surgeries(opens in a new tab) is real and can improve physicians’ ability and overcome previous limitations. From providing minimally-invasive surgical procedures to minute surgeon techniques, robotic surgeons can open up new opportunities for patients to receive care in orthopedic surgery.

Robotic surgery is not yet perfected. Voice commands directed by the surgeon control the robotic arm. As of now, there is a time-delay, referred to as latency, where the robotic arm takes a few seconds to recognize the instruction provided by the surgeon. Even so, the precision capable in the robotic arm allows for much more accuracy.

Not only could this improve the quality of the surgery, but it also allows surgeons to target more difficult areas at cheaper costs. Surgeon fatigue is also reduced (or almost eliminated). There is some preparation required in acquiring and setting up the technology, including training and capital costs. However, robotic surgery will have an extended stay in the orthopedic field.

3D Planning and 3D Printing

In addition to AR and VR technologies, 3D technologies are becoming prominent in the orthopedic space. Soon, orthopedic surgeons, staff, and researchers will be learning to use 3D planning programs like AutoCAD to construct a fracture reconstruction. Instead of radiographs, planning software will begin to incorporate 3D CT reconstruction plans. 3D virtual planning provides better surgical outcomes than conventional planning, as it allows for more mental integration.

3D is also coming to play a significant role in orthopedics through 3D printing. At the same time, this type of technology would not be possible if the shift to emerging technologies wasn’t happening in mainstream society. From dentures to human organs, 3D printed parts should be considered in surgical preparation and recommendations.

One primary use of 3D technology is with bioprinting, where small tissues, organs, and body parts are being printed with biocompatible materials to allow for better receptivity by the patient, showing less risk for rejecting the prosthesis. This virtually eliminates the need for the transplant wait-list, saving thousands of lives in the process. It also eliminates the need for drug testing on animals, allowing pharmaceutics to reach markets faster and with ethical integrity.

3D printing allows for more geometric freedom as the product is not limited to molds or engineering feats. The prints can replicate more naturally anatomical shapes, even porous products that better mimic bone structure. In doing so, 3D implants, prosthetics, and molds can create more stability in fitting and more natural bone growth.

Bracing for Change

By adapting to these technologies as they come, orthopedic surgeons can provide more treatment options, better flexibility in prescribing treatment, precision-driven results, and more reliability in treatment.

By integrating computer technologies and emerging technologies into the orthopedic OR and supporting pre-op modeling and anatomic visualization, surgeons can progress into surgical recommendations with clear steps and a more accurate and detailed plan.