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Bridging Realities: The Power of Augmented Reality in Enhancing Interventional Radiology

Created - 11.03.2024

It’s no secret that the world of healthcare is witnessing a transformational wave of technical innovation. At the forefront of this revolution is augmented reality (AR). With its capacity to bridge the gap between the digital and the real, AR is already improving medical training and patient care. 

So, in this post, let’s delve into how AR is being used by interventional radiologists today and how we can overcome its current limitations to maximise its promising potential. 


What is Augmented Reality? 
Put simply, Augmented Reality (AR) refers to a technology that combines computer-generated information with the user's real-world environment in real-time. Whilst Virtual Reality (VR) creates a completely immersive digital experience, AR enhances the physical world by overlaying digital content onto it. 

AR is already being utilised in a huge range of industries. From letting consumers virtually ‘try on’ clothes to helping pilots navigate the skies to enhancing students’ learning experiences, fusing digital with reality is offering innovative solutions across the globe. 


How is Augmented Reality useful to interventional radiologists? 
It may come as a surprise to know that we’re already using Augmented Reality in interventional radiology. In angio suites and medical schools across the world, AR is proving immensely useful in enhancing both training and patient care.

Firstly, AR allows radiologists to overlay real-time patient data directly onto their field of vision. By projecting digital information in this way, medical professionals don’t need to constantly shift their focus from their patient to a screen.

This reduced head movement and increased focus can make diagnostic and surgical procedures more seamless, whilst constant access to real-time information can contribute to improved decision-making.

Elsewhere, radiological training is harnessing the power of AR. By simulating virtual operating theatres, medical students and experienced radiologists alike can gain hands-on experience and complete complex procedures in a risk-free environment. 

How is AR already being used? 
As far back as 2009, interventional radiologists presented an early form of AR technology to the British Medical Ultrasound Society. Using a pair of digital glasses, an ultrasound image was projected in front of the user’s field of vision whilst simultaneously allowing them to look down at their patient.

Then, a decade ago, Google launched the futuristic - yet now discontinued - Google glass. Microsoft followed with their own mixed-reality solution known as HoloLens. Both of these innovative devices have been experimented with in surgical and medical training settings. 

During interventional radiology procedures HoloLens can provide real-time guidance, assisting  radiologists in precisely navigating catheters and devices during interventions such as angioplasty or stent placement.

Recent research has explored the integration of augmented reality in transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (Tips) procedures. Utilising advanced tracking equipment and computing power, medical professionals created 3D models of human livers, showcasing the potential of augmented reality to enhance procedural accuracy.

Currently, Philips Medical is developing Fibre Optic Real Shape technology that’s designed to help radiologists track catheters without radiation. The addition of artificial intelligence allows the system to scan the area inside the blood vessel and generate a computer model that a surgeon can then rotate to view from any direction.


What are the current challenges? 
Despite promising advancements, there are still substantial limitations when it comes to the accuracy, usability and availability of AR technology in interventional radiology. 

Firstly, it can be difficult to keep AR images sufficiently stable. In an interventional room, practitioners will not only be moving themselves, but also have to allow for respiratory motion in patients. In these situations, current AR struggles to adjust with complete accuracy. There is often a lag between real-world movement and the digital data that is overlaid.

Currently, HoloLens has an accuracy of approximately 1 cm. Whilst the technology is constantly improving, this current margin for error is clearly not compatible with complex interventional procedures. 

There are also user problems such as visual focus and fatigue. With stereoscopic vision, the pupil distance must be exactly right in order to simultaneously focus on two plains of vision. This distance varies significantly from one person to another, and focusing on two sets of visual data could be difficult to sustain over long periods of time.

Finally, we can’t overlook the reality that advanced AR systems, for example the latest Microsoft HoloLens, are expensive. This poses a current barrier to widespread adoption across the country.


Future Developments
Whilst there’s still a way to go, AR is poised to bridge realities and offer a new era of precision and efficiency within interventional radiology. Basic applications, despite their current limitations, are ultimately already proving beneficial. 

The next five years hold the promise of major advancements fuelled by increased processing power and artificial intelligence. As we stand on the cusp of this new fusion reality, it’s vital that medical professionals, researchers and developers collaborate in order to unlock AR’s immense potential.



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