Digital & Technology

Now is the time to invest in augmented reality for healthcare

By Vaibhav Bansal, Suresh Kainthola, and Abhi Saxena

Oct. 15, 2020 | Article | 7-minute read

Now is the time to invest in augmented reality for healthcare

What do Hollywood blockbusters such as Iron Man, Minority Report, Back to the Future, The Terminator, Avatar and Robocop have in common? All of them belong to the sci-fi genre, but that’s not all. The characters in these movies employ forms of augmented reality (AR), technologies that enable them to interact with information as if it were part of their real environment. Thanks to recent innovations, this superimposition of digital information over the real world is no longer a fantasy. AR is being hailed as the next big thing. With the help of ubiquitous smartphones, AR is expected to scale over the next decade or so. The rate at which this technology is growing may enable it to replace smart phones someday. The AR market stood at approximately $11 billion by the end of 2019 and it’s expected to grow at a CAGR of more than 45% over the next five years.


Getting a head start in AR technology could be beneficial for organizations as AR is highly interactive, makes the user experience richer, increases customer engagement, enhances personalization, helps build a stronger brand perception, enables innovative advertising and opens new sales and marketing channels. But how can AR help in healthcare exactly? And once you’ve wrapped your mind around what you may pursue, how do you get started? 

“The AR market stood at approximately $11 billion by the end of 2019 and it’s expected to grow at a CAGR of more than 45% over the next five years.”

Where augmented reality can help in the healthcare industry

The use cases of AR span multiple business areas, and there are thousands of applications supporting these use cases. Here are some of them: 

  1. Introducing new products to patients and healthcare providers. AR can help pharmaceutical companies introduce new drugs to patients by providing them a direct-to-consumer (DTC) channel. Imagine a patient popping a thousand-dollar pill, concerned over whether it would work. Companies can increase this patient’s trust by deploying AR-based mobile applications that project interactive, 3D models of complex drug behavior and the impact of therapies on patients’ bodies.

    Similarly, AR provides a unique and engaging method for the sales representatives of pharmaceutical companies to introduce their products to healthcare providers (HCPs). Traditionally, sales representatives shared printouts and brochures with HCPs. While these methods are informational, many HCPs admit to being overwhelmed and confused by information about clinical results, diagnostic procedures and drug administration processes. Without a clear understanding, HCPs are usually unable to translate complicated scientific language into simple concepts for patients. However, with AR, fun and exciting visuals can be incorporated into the product demos. For example, sales representatives can carry small, leave-behind cards that HCPs can use to interact with an educational AR puzzle while the rep is present.
  2. Assisting providers. AR technology can help surgeons perform precise and efficient surgeries. It can help them visualize a patient’s organs by consuming feeds from different diagnostic tests and scans conducted on the patient. This could help surgeons make critical decisions before the first incision. In a simple but useful application of the technology, AR enables the identification of a patient’s veins for various diagnostic tests. Patients can be compared with ideal or healthy images as well. For example, some eye ailments can be detected by comparing eye movements with 3D simulations.
  3. Re-imagining patient journeys. Understanding the patient journey enables HCPs to empathize with and engage patients throughout the care process. Providers have been documenting patient information journeys for decades and this work has attracted more interest in recent years. AR can help reimagine how to tell the story of an average patient journey. With AR, we can project the long-term road map and possible next steps for a patient in a reliable manner. A recent example we’ve seen is a life-sized, interactive avatar of a caretaker that can walk patients through upcoming phases that they can expect in their care. Using this technology to fully explain a patient’s journey will make patient interaction more empathetic, genuine and engaging. 
  4. Your personal AR trainer. Augmented reality can help patients achieve an immersive workout experience without engaging with an in-person trainer, which can be used to boost physical fitness or augment physical therapy with at-home exercises done between appointments with a human. AR technology can be used to create a personal 3D training partner or avatar for physiotherapy. In such a scenario, patients can compare their body movements with the perfectly executed movements of an AR avatar and correct accordingly. Patients can select trainings on a mobile application and the AR partner will appear and guide them through exercises.

How to start your AR journey?

While every organization is likely to find its own reasons and applications for AR, here’s an eight-step guide to help you start your AR journey:

  1. Identify a strong use case. Getting into a new technology with a strong use case can be helpful for any initiative. If the use case directly impacts customers or will have a strong impact on the organization, it will be easier to make the case. Instead of investing effort and money in training people in the organization at the start of the initiative, make a strong case “on paper” that your project has the potential for significant impact. 
  2. Build a business case and start with a pilot. Based on the identified use case, the organization can conduct a quick cost-benefit analysis and prepare the project charter. Launch the first project as a pilot, start with a small scope and look for quick wins. As a next step, identify a project sponsor who can help you fund your project. Obtain buy-in from the sponsor, and prepare a plan for execution.
  3. Apply a creative lens. Augmented reality directly impacts user or customer experiences and offers a bridge between the real world and the digital world. It’s important to build a creative and diverse team that creates experiences which are engaging and to which people can relate.
  4. Select an AR platform. A good number of AR software platforms are available in the market. Some notable ones include Vuforia, AR Core, AR Kit, etc. Many of these platforms have similar features. Conduct an analysis to determine which is best for your organization.
  5. Form internal partnerships with IT and legal. Employing most technologies today requires upfront collaboration with IT and legal teams because of the need for adherence to data security and integrity policies and best practices in the organization. The prerequisites for the implementation of AR technology are no different. For example, an AR app dealing with sensitive personal information must be compliant with global data privacy regulations. Additionally, IT will play an important role in ensuring access, approvals, development and deployment of AR applications, as well as the surrounding IT infrastructure.
  6. Develop, measure and iterate. This is the most important and crucial phase of the AR journey. In this phase, the pilot is designed and developed. It’s then rolled out to select customers (internal or external), measured for performance against KPIs, such as the number of users and average usage time and scrutinized for potential improvements. The organization can iterate this process a few times before achieving the desired state.
  7. Create and communicate awareness. The organization can benefit a great deal by creating and sharing awareness about the project’s goals and impact. Communicating success within and outside the organization helps convert early naysayers and apprehensive stakeholders. At times, small AR projects can be used in internal initiatives or events to promote its adoption.     
  8. Plan to scale. Once everything above is in place, build a plan to scale the AR solution across several other business applications and internal use cases. The first thing you’ll need to consider is whether to drive the expansion in-house or rely on an outside vendor. Such a consideration primarily comes down to time and resources. A DIY approach requires greater effort and a high investment spread out over a longer period while you recruit and develop your team. A vendor will require higher up-front costs but scale your program faster. 
AR is one of the fastest-growing emerging technologies of our time. It can have a great impact on how organizations differentiate products and drive competitive advantage in the years to come. However, to realize its full potential, AR must make the leap from fancy new toy to sustainable business value generator. While we see this digital revolution unfold before our eyes, we must also be prepared to be the early movers in this journey rather than jumping late on the bandwagon.