Both healthcare business leaders and XR technology leaders see healthcare as one of the top markets for virtual and augmented reality programs. From patient-centered applications like planning surgeries with virtual reality to nursing school curricula, the healthcare industry has explored how XR programs can augment health outcomes for patients for many years.

Benefits of XR in Healthcare

Patient-centered approaches appear to drive much of the growth in immersive healthcare technology today. ABI Research forecasts that the augmented reality healthcare market is expected to generate as much as $10 billion in revenues by 2024, while virtual reality applications could generate up to $1.2 billion during the same period.

ABI also notes that provider-focused applications such as education and training are an important part of that growth. “AR and VR solutions have proven their value and are increasingly established in healthcare training and education, pre-operation and treatment planning, and data/3D model visualization use cases,” ABI noted in its October 2020 report on XR in the healthcare industry.

In line with this trend, the University of Kansas announced in 2020 that it was working with a major cell phone carrier on virtual and augmented reality training for nurses. The training will explore “new and creative ways to educate and train nurses across a variety of settings – whether they are attending a university, conducting research in a lab or working in a rural clinic or large metropolitan hospital.”

Similarly, administrators turned to augmented reality after the COVID-19 pandemic initially shut down the University of Michigan School of Nursing. They used augmented reality to continue teaching students a variety of critical patient procedures. Students learned techniques such as how to insert catheters, start an IV, and insert a chest tube. Using a mixed reality headset, students could practice procedures on manikins. The immersive technology allowed them to view instructions and videos safely as they performed the procedures in a sterile and socially distant environment.

Addressing Worker Shortages in High-Growth Healthcare Jobs

Jobs in healthcare are growing exponentially. Demand for positions such as nurse practitioners, occupational therapy assistants, and physician assistants are among the fastest-growing jobs in the U.S., according to BLS. BLS projects the growth rate for nurse practitioner jobs will be more than 52 percent from 2019 to 2029.

The healthcare industry already employs a fair number of people with disabilities. BLS estimates that of the people with disabilities who have a job, more than 21 percent are in healthcare and education jobs. However, nurses with mobility disabilities have had challenges getting hired. These hiring practices have been proven wrong time and again, as Forbes detailed in July 2020 when it featured the stories of three nurses with disabilities who were working to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in hospitals around the country.

Organizations such as the Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Losses (AMPHL) offer mentorship programs for people who are deaf or hard of hearing who are looking for jobs in the medical field. Similarly, some healthcare providers have piloted programs aimed at recruiting people with disabilities into the medical field. For example, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s Project Search aims to train and educate teenagers with disabilities so they can enter healthcare jobs.

Programs like the ones run by AMPHL and Cincinnati Children’s show that people with disabilities are a desirable hiring pool. They also prove how important it is for healthcare organizations to have accessible technology, including XR, so that all employees can perform their jobs.

Immersive Applications in Healthcare Require New Skills

Many believe that XR learning applications for doctors and nurses are revolutionizing the field of medicine. This is because they allow medical professionals to make mistakes and learn from them without harming actual patients. Instead of practicing on actual patients, medical professionals can engage in virtual simulations that help to develop their clinical decision-making, empathy, knowledge of medical conditions, and understanding of human anatomy. In nursing education, students studying to be nurses or nurse practitioners can use immersive technologies to practice diagnosing virtual patients who have unique personalities and characteristics. They can attend to virtual patients in various clinical settings and receive detailed feedback on the outcomes of their treatments.

Many immersive applications explore how to advance telehealth. In telehealth settings, doctors and nurses see patients virtually and examine lab results and x-rays from afar. Innovations like these are seen as especially needed in rural areas. Access to healthcare professionals and advanced medical treatments may be scarce in these areas. These technologies also create the potential for people with disabilities to provide care and give treatment advice remotely if they are unable to be in a clinical setting. Additionally, accessible immersive technologies may also be beneficial to patients seeking care for temporary or permanent disabilities. These patients may need to access accessible XR technologies as part of their care.

Immersive medical simulation training could help remove some physical barriers to nursing training. This approach could allow nursing students to practice in accessible virtual environments. Nursing educators Stacey M. Carroll and Carrie Eaton have suggested two strategies in The Journal of Nursing Education to address physical barriers that may be present. They proposed “peer assistance and delegation — both of which are done by nurses without disabilities as well” as a viable option. This type of accommodation can work for a nurse with a disability or a nurse with a temporary or situational disability.

Carroll and Eaton also note that medical simulation training can provide more accessibility than some clinical sites. Clinical sites may be located in older facilities and have small rooms that are not wheelchair accessible. Though Carroll and Eaton do not directly address immersive technologies, it is not a leap to imagine that when using XR technology, a more experienced nurse could virtually support a student or a colleague using augmented or virtual reality remote assistance programs.

Inclusive Design of XR Will Benefit Healthcare

The use of immersive technologies in healthcare settings can help employees with or without disabilities. They can use it to visualize or remember the steps needed to complete procedures and diagnostics, as well as communicate and collaborate with their co-workers and patients. Also, in medical settings, both practitioners and patients could experience temporary physical, sensory, or cognitive challenges due to a medical condition, wearing medical uniforms, following safety procedures, or staying focused on performing tasks. Every medical professional will benefit from the ability to choose how they interact with an immersive application.

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