In the future, you and your doctor could be sitting across from each other despite being in different buildings, cities or countries. By 2070, virtual reality will have transformed the way doctors and patients interact, according to JCU’s Dr Eric Wang.
Receiving medical attention no longer necessarily requires a patient to physically go to a clinic or hospital. Skype and mobile apps have dramatically increased the convenience and access people have to healthcare. Dr Eric Wang says these advances are only the beginning, with telemedicine to soon step into the realm of virtual reality.
Eric has been working with 3D imaging and video technology for almost three years and is an Electronic Systems and Internet of Things lecturer. He says virtual reality has many potential applications in medicine and believes it’s only a matter of time before technological advances overcome current challenges.
“I think that within the next 50 years, you will only go to the hospital for surgery,” Eric says. “We will have all these wearable devices, like wearable heart monitors, that can connect to networks so that everyday your doctor can monitor your data. In the future, because you are wearing such devices you won’t need to go to the doctor until you have a serious condition.”
Eric’s vision drives him to find solutions to current setbacks in incorporating new technology into telemedicine. The highly dynamic field involves the use of telecommunication and information technology to provide healthcare from a distance. Telemedicine also includes the transmission of medical, imaging and health informatics data from one site to another.
“I think telemedicine has huge potential for incorporating this new technology,” he says. “You already see virtual reality in the entertainment and tourism industries. In telemedicine, you still use a conventional screen and you make a skype call or something similar. It’s not efficient, it’s just a form of videoconference and it hasn’t incorporated much information or new technology.”
Eric is working on ensuring that the new technology is up to the task. He says issues around precision of information, privacy of patients and quality of virtual reality experiences mean that work still has to be done to incorporate virtual reality with telemedicine.
“There are a few key challenges in this area,” Eric says. “Building a prototype is not that difficult, but to commercialise it you need to address these issues. The clinical part is the most important part of this process, so you need to develop a way to protect the privacy of the patient. There is also the challenge of calculating depth information and using a 3D model to replace the goggles, as well as the challenge of the transmission of the data.”
One key obstacle to incorporating virtual reality technology into medicine is the hardware itself. Virtual reality goggles cover much of the user’s face, which could make doctor-patient interactions awkward. Eric hopes that creating an immersive experience for both the doctor and patient will overcome this challenge.
“With virtual reality, one of the things is to provide a more immersive experience, so it’s like you’re sitting in front of a doctor,” he says. “It’s not really practical at the moment that you see a patient wearing goggles and they see you wearing goggles — it’s not immersive. One of the techniques we’re going to incorporate is to create a dynamic 3D model of the patient so that during a virtual consultation we can use the 3D model to replace the goggles and create a complete look of the patient and it will be a more immersive experience.”
As well as virtual reality, Eric is optimistic that augmented reality can be used in medicine. He already sees applications in using augmented reality for training medical students. He compares it to Pokémon Go, but for surgery.
“In sci-fi movies they have holograms,” he says. “At the moment, we have problems with resolutions and the quality of holograms but we are only at the baby stage of this technology. Using it is a ‘big’ thing now, but as the technology matures it will become ‘normal’. Augmented reality will definitely have uses in telemedicine, especially for the education of medical students. You have seen it in sci-fi movies — it’s the future.”
If you have a passion for innovation and are keen to take advantage of what the future holds, discover more about the Bachelor of Engineering (Honours), majoring in Electronic Systems and Internet of Things Engineering.
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