Dr. Sana Farid trains eyes on healthcare’s future with extended reality technology

Dr. Sana Farid

In an interview with HealthTechAsia, healthcare XR visionary Dr. Sana Farid offers insight into how immersive technologies promise a significant leap forward in healthcare, offering the potential to transform how future providers are trained, creating a better prepared and more highly skilled workforce.

Perhaps there is life in the metaverse after all—or, more accurately, extended reality (XR), which according to Saudi-based AI and XR strategist Dr. Sana Farid has the potential to revolutionise patient care.

Dr. Sana, Program Director 3 Lines XR Lab, and President of VR/AR Association – MENA, is also a qualified general surgeon. In her view XR, or immersive technologies encompassing both virtual reality and augmented reality, is well-poised to address critical healthcare challenges and offers exciting possibilities for a better connected healthcare system.

Two XR use cases in particular have potential for “explosive adoption” in the coming years: medical education and training, and remote care and rehabilitation.

XR and value-based care

“We can envision a future where geographical limitations are no longer a barrier to accessing quality care. Imagine being able to consult with a specialist remotely, regardless of location,” Dr. Sana started. “XR can bridge geographical gaps, making high-quality care accessible to everyone. It’s about creating a virtual space where patients and providers can interact seamlessly, fostering better healthcare delivery anytime, anywhere. Additionally, XR can personalise treatment plans and offer targeted interventions for various health conditions.

She used the example of growing elderly populations around the world who have chronic illnesses.

“XR can provide targeted exercise programs, remote access to care, and even facilitate remote procedures. We’ve seen first-hand how effective XR can be. We developed a language-agnostic medical program for rural areas, impacting many lives by overcoming language barriers.”

Young adults also stand to benefit. “I had the opportunity to work on a project where children with special physical needs underwent physical therapy in a whole new way,” Dr. Sana explained. “We created a VR-based immersive experience that provided them with specific games tailored to the muscle groups they needed to work on. This way, it was not only fun and engaging for them – they were essentially playing a game – but they were also achieving their physical therapy goals at the same time.”

Children with special education needs engaged in a virtual reality-based session.
Children with special education needs engaged in a virtual reality-based session.

Above all, XR can play a pivotal role in the transition to value-based care. “We need to move from a reactive approach focused solely on disease treatment to a more proactive approach that emphasises preventative care and early intervention,” she said.

“XR can play a crucial role in achieving this shift, as it offers tools for remote monitoring, personalised wellness programs, and improved patient education. By highlighting the potential cost savings and improved quality of care that XR can bring, we can encourage a shift in budgets towards preventative and proactive healthcare strategies. This will allow us to unlock the true potential of immersive technology in revolutionising healthcare delivery.”

XR in healthcare training

Patient care aside, Dr. Sana believes that XR can also be used in training, addressing the growing shortage of healthcare providers by enabling learners to practise in realistic, simulated scenarios. This fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills, leaving medical professionals better equipped for the future.

“Immersive tools can create incredibly realistic, interactive, and responsive learning scenarios that are both accessible and engaging,” she said. “This allows students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills while practicing complex procedures or patient interactions in a safe, virtual environment. Ultimately, this translates to better-equipped healthcare professionals who are more prepared to handle real-world medical and surgical situations.”

Dr. Sana and her team are currently developing a suite of immersive training programmes focused on essential medical procedures, with the goal of equipping healthcare professionals, students, and even the general public with the knowledge and skills to handle critical situations in their initial stages.

Built with different experience levels in mind, the programmes range from stitching and wound care to first aid and emergency response.

“These interventions can be lifesaving, and XR and AI tools hold immense potential to democratise healthcare by extending education beyond hospital walls,” she revealed. “Imagine a future where anyone can use these programmes to identify a stroke and provide immediate assistance. In stroke cases, bystanders equipped with these skills can make a crucial difference.”

An aspiring surgeon practicing knee replacement surgery in a safe virtual environment with Orama VR.

Looking ahead, 3 Lines XR will expand the programmes’ scope to encompass a wider range of procedures and medical scenarios, as well as integrate AI for personalised learning pathways and real-time feedback within the immersive experience. “Our focus is on leveraging immersive technology to make healthcare knowledge more accessible and empower individuals to become active participants in their own health and wellbeing.”

It would have been remiss of me not to ask Dr. Sana about generative AI’s potential role in training alongside XR.

“Generative AI tools hold immense potential to complement immersive technology,” she replied.

According to her, Gen AI can enable personalised learning by analysing individual user data from immersive training experiences. “This data can include performance metrics, areas of difficulty, and preferred learning styles. Based on this analysis, AI personalises the learning journey within VR or AR simulations. For example, it could adjust the difficulty level of exercises, suggest alternative learning paths, or even provide tailored feedback.”

Gen AI can also analyse data to identify common patterns in user performance across a large group, for the purpose of adaptive training. “This helps identify areas where training simulations need improvement or adjustment. Additionally, AI can predict a user’s progress based on their initial performance and adapt the training program accordingly. This ensures users are constantly challenged and motivated.

“Third, Generative AI processes user data in real-time within an immersive experience. This allows for immediate feedback and coaching based on user actions and decisions within the simulation. Imagine a VR surgery simulator where AI can point out mistakes and suggest corrective actions as the user performs the virtual procedure.”

Stakeholder cooperation

While Dr. Sana is highly optimistic about XR’s long-term impact on healthcare, it’s not without its challenges—challenges that require a multi-faceted approach.

“Firstly, the long-term cost-effectiveness of XR needs to be emphasised,” she stressed. “While initial investments may be high, training with immersive technology can potentially reduce errors and improve efficiency, leading to cost savings down the line.”

She also highlighted the need for healthcare institutions and insurance companies to recognise the value proposition of XR, and its ability to improve patient outcomes and potentially reduce overall healthcare costs. “Advocating for changes in reimbursement policies is crucial,” the surgeon underscored.

Stakeholders also need to come together to address the thorny issue of ethics. “Open discussions and collaborations between healthcare professionals, developers, and regulatory bodies are essential. We need to establish clear ethical guidelines and robust regulatory frameworks to ensure the safe and responsible use of XR in healthcare.”

In the long run, Dr. Sana believes that organisations will shift from asking why XR to which programme suits their needs.

“My perspective is that simply acknowledging these advancements isn’t enough. We need to actively embrace XR and similar technologies. This will allow us to build effective programmes that truly solve real-world problems in healthcare.

Ultimately, it’s about harnessing innovation to create a future where healthcare is more accessible, efficient, and tailored to individual needs,” she concluded.

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