London doctors use augmented reality goggles to treat coronavirus patients

Pandemic driving rapid adoption of new technology in hospitals, pioneering doctor tells The National

Using the headset, the number of medical workers exposed to potential infection can be reduced. Courtesy Microsoft
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A new version of Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset is being used in London hospitals to help keep doctors and patients on the front line of Europe’s largest coronavirus outbreak safe.

The technology allows doctors wearing the special goggles to beam video and audio from coronavirus wards to colleagues elsewhere, reducing both the risk of exposure for medical workers and the demand on supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Using the headsets to connect to Microsoft’s Teams software, doctors can contribute to patient examinations without ever setting foot in hospital.

Dr Dimitri Amiras, head of service for musculoskeletal radiology at Imperial Healthcare Trust, pioneered the use of the technology in UK hospitals. He told The National that it was inspiring to see the devices adapted to meet the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic.

Doctors are able to help monitor patients remotely, using the headset's video link. Courtesy Microsoft
Doctors are able to help monitor patients remotely, using the headset's video link. Courtesy Microsoft

“This crisis has been a real challenge for the whole world,” Dr Amiras said. “I think it gives inspiration to see that human ingenuity and innovation can tackle any challenges being thrown at it.”

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a global surge in the adoption of technology platforms enabling patients and doctors to communicate without risking further spread of the disease.

The senior author on an influential 2018 study that first brought augmented reality to Imperial, Dr Amiras said the outbreak of the virus had necessitated that Britain’s medics move quickly to bring in new ways of working.

“I think as medical professionals we are inherently conservative,” he said. “You don’t want to try something new if you know something already works.”

The pandemic, he said, has forced doctors to open their eyes to the potential of the new technology.

“If someone had said before this coronavirus crisis that there would only be one person going from room to room and the rest of you would be stuck in another room because we need to reduce infection rates, everyone would think you were crazy.”

The HoloLens technology being tested by staff at Imperial could be rolled out across the country if it proves effective.

Dr Amiras said it was clear from the outset that there were a large number of potential uses for the technology in the medical field, and Microsoft got involved during the early stages of the pandemic to work on ways to use the HoloLens device to help front-line health workers.

An updated model of the headset that was more comfortable to wear opened the door to more uses for the technology, Dr Amiras said.

Before the pandemic, it had primarily been used to allow consultants and other experts to achieve the best possible view of surgical procedures.

Conventional operating theatres, Dr Amiras said, were more like “sitting in the cheap seats at the opera” when compared with the first-person view given by the Microsoft headset.

The devices also allow surgeons to interact in situ with 3D digital models of CAT scan data to help enhance their understanding of patients’ unique anatomy.

The augmented reality technology can be worn in conjuction with existing PPE. Courtesy Microsoft
The augmented reality technology can be worn in conjuction with existing PPE. Courtesy Microsoft

More than 100 NHS staff members have died during the outbreak, according to the BBC, which has been tracking their deaths, with many more falling ill.

“A lot of people have lost their lives and lots of people have lost family members and that’s incredibly sad,” Dr Amiras said.

“For me it’s really good to see technologies being used in a way that’s transformative and as human beings we’re trying to adapt as quickly as we can.”