by Phil Goldstein
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been one of the civilian federal agencies at the forefront of using 5G wireless networks to achieve its mission, and now the agency is looking to innovate further. The VA wants to leverage 5G to expand the use of augmented reality technology to aid doctors and enhance surgeries and care for veterans.
The VA has been working for more than a year on the Project Convergence initiative, which supports what the agency calls the “first-ever 5G-enabled augmented reality surgical navigation system,” helping it “deliver the most advanced surgical care available.”
“This trailblazing technology will allow VA health care providers to view patients’ anatomy in pre-surgical preparation and intervention,” the VA says on its website.
The project and 5G have enabled the VA to process and analyze large imaging files, such as MRIs and CT scans. As FedScoop reports, the project so far has focused on “training, education and pre-surgical planning before an operation,” but the VA has bigger plans. The agency eventually wants to use AR headsets to superimpose digital health information and medical images on a patient for “safer and more effective procedures,” Thomas Osborne, director of the VA’s National Center for Collaborative Healthcare Innovation, tells FedScoop.
VA Sees Promise for 5G and AR in Patient Care
Under Project Convergence, the VA has partnered with Verizon, medical AR technology company Medivis and Microsoft. The program brings Verizon’s 5G technology together with a Food and Drug Administration-approved use case for Medivis’ surgical AR clinical visualization software and Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 headset and Azure cloud service.
Combining these technologies, the VA has tested augmented reality “X-ray vision” and superimposed medical images on a patient in a lab setting, Osborne tells FedScoop.
“We’re right on the cusp of taking that information [and] superimposing it seamlessly on top of the patient in front of you,” he says of using the technology in a real-world medical procedure. “And so at that point, you literally have X-ray vision.”
Using AR in a patient setting would open up many opportunities to better assess patients’ conditions and to help trainees and patients understand what is happening.
“There’s an opportunity for us to have safer, more effective procedures because we can go in and find the safest path without having to worry about hitting things that you don’t want to hit like vessels and nerves and going to the most precise and efficient way,” Osborne says.
5G wireless networking is a foundational element of such innovation, he says.
“You can have more data and be able to process more data, take it from one place, like the point of care, and bring it to another place efficiently and fast, like a supercomputer or a cloud-based analytics platform where that information can be processed and turned into knowledge and wisdom and then brought back to the point of care so you can have real-time clinical decision support,” Osborne tells FedScoop. “And the more elements you bring into that system, the better you are empowered” to deliver the most precise and personalized care.
VA Also Experiments with VR for Patient Care
In addition to Project Convergence, the VA is using virtual reality and AR in other ways to improve patient care.
According to a recent VA blog post, on Aug. 17, the Veterans Health Administration Innovation Ecosystem and VR health and wellness platform Wellovate announced the launch of a program to use Wellovate’s Waya Health platform.
The technology lets veterans experience “VR immersion therapy,” which the agency says is “effective for managing pain, stress and anxiety; promoting relaxation; decreasing negative behaviors; and enhancing positive behaviors.”
Augmented reality therapy can provide significant benefits for veterans, according to the VA. “Through a previous three-year evaluation of Veterans using Waya Health’s VR tools in inpatient and long-term care settings at the Western North Carolina VA Health Care System (WNCVAHCS), in Asheville, N.C., 84 percent of Veterans reported reduction in discomfort, 89 percent reported reduction in stress, 96 percent reported enjoying their experience, and 97 percent said they would recommend it to their peers,” according to the blog post.