While the COVID-19 pandemic pushed forward massive advancements in telehealth, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has taken it one step – or more – further and is using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in nearly 50 sites for clinical care, an official said Nov. 8.

Dr. Ryan Vega, the VA’s Diffusion of Excellence Lead, said during a recorded panel at ACT-IAC’s Imagine Nation conference in Pennsylvania on Nov. 8 that the VA is currently using AR and VR, and what Vega calls extended reality (XR) for everything from training to patient education, pre-surgical planning, and even remote care.

“If you’re like the VA, doing a course on a computer and watching a couple of videos, isn’t really cutting it,” Vega said. “So, we can reimagine new types of training or nontraditional courses that we sometimes just leave to the standard. And then that brings us to the future.”

“What will be possible is for a surgeon to be sitting in their home and be transported to an operator where they can see the patient on the table,” Vega explained. “They can hear the chatter of the surgical techs, the anesthesiologist, they can hear the machines beeping, and they can feel with their hands what a surgeon halfway around the world is feeling through telepresence. The idea of remote surgery, the idea of haptics and biosensors, and telepresence enabling us to be in two places at once.”

Vega said the VA is also making the most of a partnership with Microsoft, Verizon, and a company that has developed an advanced computer spatial technology, which has allowed doctors to take an MRI or CAT scan and turn it into a holographic image. Doctors can then layer that “near-identical” rendering of the patient’s anatomy over the patient’s body to help plan out the surgery before even making an incision.

Vega points to 5G as a driver for technologies like this, allowing for shorter latencies and more abilities than previously available on Wi-Fi.

“Imagine a surgeon being in the operating room having to wait until the picture stops pixelating and the spinning wall stops spinning,” Vega said. “The evolution of these types of technologies, the evolution of new backbones, and 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are going to enable us to reimagine how we experience and deliver healthcare, enabling things that we once believed to be science fiction to be true.”

“The VA over the past year has been focused on what that means for veterans, not just how we get the technology out into clinical practice, but understanding its implications, understanding the data, the infrastructures that will be required,” Vega said. “Experiences that I believe will allow us to shape the future of medicine not just for veterans, but for all.”

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.
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