How virtual reality can advance how doctors approach surgery

From penicillin to x-rays, any medical advancement requires both professionals who are committed and technology that is accessible. When expertise meets innovation, lives are changed—and sometimes, saved.

And here comes the next breakthrough. Virtual reality technology has been around for years, and its presence is growing in the medical field, with applications ranging from the diagnostic to the surgical to the palliative to the therapeutic. In the near future, VR will be a mainstay in hospitals. Patients will encounter it at the front desk, in the OR and everywhere in between.

But first, a next-generation network must be in place for VR to finally cross over—one that offers the ultra-low latency necessary to render VR apps smooth, scalable and accessible. Making virtual reality an everyday reality requires a network like Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband.

Eliminating distance

At Verizon’s 5G Labs in New York, students and instructors from Columbia University’s Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Laboratory have been using a pre-commercial Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband connection to refine a platform that will enable motor rehabilitation therapy sessions using VR. For patients who aren’t able to meet with therapists in person, this type of remote access has the potential to quite literally change their lives.

A sample exercise requires the patient and remote therapist to wear VR headsets and hold VR controllers to manipulate a virtual platform to roll and bounce a ball on its surface. The signals from each set of eyewear and controllers travel across the Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband connection to a server 20 miles away and back in near-real time, effectively approximating in-person interaction with a physical platform and ball that respond to even the slightest movement from either user.

This exercise depends on Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband’s low latency, with lag times measured in milliseconds—faster than the blink of an eye—to provide a seamless experience that won’t cause nausea or disorientation for the user.

“We’ve been able to use the Verizon 5G connection to perform experiments that prove this to be a viable approach,” says Columbia professor and lab director Steven Feiner. “The dream that we as technologists have is that of people being able to interact with each other as naturally as possible when they’re not in the same place.”

Mapping the body

Sharing space with Feiner and his colleagues at the Verizon 5G Labs are the surgeons, radiologists and engineers at Medivis, a medical visualization company. Medivis uses mixed-reality lenses and the power of Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband to create rich, ultrahigh-fidelity holographic 3D anatomical renderings that can be studied from every angle and even projected onto the body—essentially making patients see-through and replacing old-fashioned 2D imaging.

According to Medivis co-founder Dr. Osamah Choudhry, plugging into a Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband network has profoundly impacted his thinking already. “The entire goal of our technology is to send patient medical imaging that’s been holographically rendered as fast and with as much detail as possible,” he says. “The way to do that is to have incredible connectivity—to send that data with virtually no lag time, so that it can be used by the surgeon in near-real time. Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband opens those doors for us.”

Choudhry’s partner, Dr. Christopher Morley, is keen to highlight the nearly limitless applications of augmented reality tools “supercharged” by Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband. “Medivis will enable immersive collaboration between doctors and patients, both face-to-face and in remote locations,” he says. “It will fundamentally transform how we train our students, the future caregivers. It will raise the bar of the entire profession, making it far more integrated and personalized. Innovations like this have been a long time coming.”

A holistic approach to healthcare

Considering the breakthroughs taking place in Verizon’s 5G Lab, the question isn’t, “What can VR do to improve patient outcomes?” but rather, “What can’t it do?” Beyond rehabilitation and surgical imaging, VR apps are being used to diagnose bipolar disorder, manage PTSD, socialize Autistic children and treat generalized anxiety. From phobias to phantom limb syndrome, VR interventions have proven effective.

In the future, VR will help streamline the entire hospital, from recordkeeping to patient admittance in the ER. Machine-learning robots in hospitals will communicate and coordinate schedules with each other, freeing up overextended nursing staff to focus more on patient care and less on clerical work. That’s a worthy goal that too often gets received with good intentions yet ultimately lost in the shuffle of an overtaxed system. And it’s the high bandwidth and low latency of Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband that will bring these improvements about at scale and at unprecedented speed.

“Basic things get solved by Verizon 5G so easily,” says Faraz Shafiq, Executive Director of Digital Platforms for Verizon. “Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband is giving you this neat blank canvas to explore whatever you want to explore.”

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