- Several start-ups have developed technology that allows surgeons to work remotely.
- Augmented and virtual reality can help surgeons train and help operate remotely and in real time.
- The pandemic has accelerated the need for AR and VR technology in the operating room.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
In 2015, Dr. Nadine Hachach-Haram helped perform her first remote live surgery on a bomb victim in Gaza from her home in London. She had no idea that just five years later her technology would be used to enable surgeons to self-isolate and work from home during a pandemic.
As COVID-19 continues to change the way people work, many frontline workers, especially surgeons, do not have the luxury of working from home. Traditionally, they are bound to hospitals, clinics or health care centers.
But several startups have found a solution, allowing surgeons to work and train from home using technology for virtual and augmented reality. Hundreds of hospitals in the US have already begun to adopt the technology.
ImmersiveTouch, a start-up based out of Chicago, uses AR and VR technology to allow surgeons to practice procedures outside of the hospital using Oculus headsets and 3-D scans of patients.
The company has seen its user base grow to almost three times its size in 2020, said ImmersiveTouch president Jay Banerjee.
Banerjee said he expects more than half of the hospitals in the US will be using this technology within the next three years. A report from Allied Market Research finds the use of this technology in healthcare will account for a multi-billion dollar industry by 2026.
“COVID-19 has really accelerated the adoption of remote training and remote collaboration,” Banerjee told Insider. “That’s really what’s at the core of ImmersiveTouch.”
The pandemic has increased health disparities as it limits a surgeon’s ability to travel
Hachach-Haram, a reconstructive surgeon, started her company, Proximie, to help address health disparities across the globe. Proximie connects experts with remote cases and allows them to walk other surgeons in the operating room through live procedures step-by-step using VR.
Over the past five years, Hachach-Haram has found widespread success with her technology and has even been honored by Queen Elizabeth II. In 2020, she saw the company grow at a new record pace, spanning six times as many hospitals as the previous year.
“The challenge of connecting experts before COVID-19 was difficult enough, but during the pandemic it was nearly impossible for many hospitals,” Hachach-Haram told Insider. “It became apparent that the technology that was needed in more remote parts of the world was the same technology that was needed now everywhere”
Proximie and ImmersiveTouch’s technology has been used in thousands of procedures and adopted by hundreds of hospitals.
Hachach-Haram has created partnerships with hospitals in over 35 countries, including UMass Memorial Health Care and Mass General Hospital in Boston. She said the platform is used to perform about 800 surgeries per month around the world.
In 2019, Proximie was awarded a multi-year contract with the UK Ministry of Defence to provide the service to Royal Navy ships. At the onset of the pandemic, National Health Service hospitals in the UK adopted the technology as a way to allow self-isolating surgeons to connect with frontline workers.
ImmersiveTouch’s technology has also been implemented at many leading hospitals, including John Hopkins, University of Chicago and University of Texas hospitals. This year alone, the company has been asked to install the software in about 150 more hospitals.
ImmersiveTouch, Proximie use the same technology found in many gaming systems
The technology behind ImmersiveTouch and Proximie is similar to that of gaming systems and popular apps like Snapchat’s filters or Pokemon Go.
Banerjee said ImmersiveTouch was built in 2005 off the same computer graphics that created the Death Star from “Star Wars.”
Today, ImmersiveTouch uses Facebook’s Oculus Quest and Rift headsets, alongside the company’s software which generates 3-D replicas of patient scans and allows surgeons to practice on the scans prior to performing surgery. The company is also looking to capitalize on its name and is working towards incorporating robotic haptic feedback that could simulate the feeling of working on human tissue.
A large part of a surgeon’s job is training and Banerjee said his company’s technology allows for ease of training and collaboration from home.
With Proximie’s technology, the remote surgeon uses cameras at the operating site and the digital interface to guide the surgeon in the operating room through the procedure. When Hachach-Haram helped perform her first live surgery on Fadel, the 18-year-old bomb victim from Gaza, she guided a local trauma surgeon through the operation using the VR setup to visually demonstrate the process without ever having met the patient .
“It’s like having a coach in the wings working with you,” Hachach-Haram said regarding remote guiance through Proximie.
Saving money while staying safe
The software also saves the hospitals money.
This year, many hospitals have opted to hold remote training events using ImmersiveTouch’s virtual cadavers. Surgeons are typically required to travel to training events every year, but the technology allows these events to take place remotely, without the cost of plane tickets, hotels, fancy dinners, or cadavers.
While ImmersiveTouch users can easily buy VR headsets themselves, Hachach-Haram has focused on making her technology as simple as possible to provide a lower-cost barrier of entry for surgeons in developing countries. The only requirement for Proximie is a Wi-Fi connection. The program allows surgeons a 360-view of the operation in real time directly on their computer screen via Proximie’s website.
Proximie and ImmersiveTouch are not the only start-ups working to bring AR and VR technology to the operating room. Several other companies have developed technology that will allow for remote training and collaboration, including Sentiar, a start-up that uses a holographic overlay of a patient’s scans to allow surgeons to see the anatomy in its entirety as they operate. Other companies, like Osso VR and Surgical Theater, focus on using the technology for training and pre-op planning.
Despite the widespread interest in using AR and VR technology in the operating room, the technology still faces several hurdles, including doubt regarding the technology’s reliability as well as the accessibility of the hardware that could be expensive or difficult to purchase in more remote areas of the world.
One of the biggest challenges for Proximie’s team has been convincing surgeons to trust and use the product — a process that has been accelerated by COVID-19 travel restrictions. The widespread travel bans have forced more health centers to consider remote options like Proximie or ImmersiveTouch.
“Proximie disrupts the centuries old way of performing surgery, so I knew I had to be careful,” Hachach-Haram said in a statement. “I have made it clear that Proximie is simply a helpful addition to the process and that we will always need surgeons and human-patient interaction.”