For proper wound healing and closure, surgery is often necessary. The Penn Center for Wound Healing and Reconstruction highlighted which operations are necessary for specific wound types, including sutures, adhesives and tape for small injuries. Patients suffering from slow healing or severe scarring may require additional reconstructive surgery to properly close the wound, including skin grafts, tissue expansion and flaps.

A team of researchers from the Imperial College London carried out a study at St. Mary’s Hospital to test a possible new tool for reconstructive surgery: Augmented reality headsets.

Seeing through different eyes

During several reconstructive procedures, the surgeons wore Microsoft HoloLens headsets that essentially allowed them to see through the patient’s limb. The headsets function like mini-computers that can mix holograms with the viewer’s reality. In these lower limb reconstructive surgeries, the HoloLens casted images on the patient’s leg, which allowed the surgeon to “see” the bones and blood vessels.

The research team created these images by taking CT scans and breaking them into the bone, muscle, fatty tissue and blood vessels. Then, they used software to create 3D models of the leg, which were then rendered for the HoloLens headset and overlaid on the patient’s leg during the operation. When  surgeons saw these overlaid images during surgery, they were able to determine bone location, identify targets and reconnect blood vessels with more accuracy.

Improving traditional methods

Augmented reality approaches can be helpful for severe tissue damage or open wounds that require immediate reconstructive surgery, such as covering injured skin with flaps of tissue from elsewhere on the body. This “new” tissue has to be properly connected to the wounded area for effective healing. Standard approaches to these reconstructive surgeries employ ultrasound scanners to locate the blood vessels under the skin. However, using augmented reality speeds up this process and allows for a higher level of accuracy when connecting the blood vessels.

According to Jon Simmons, the plastic and reconstructive surgeon who led the HoloLens headset trial surgeries, augmented reality technology “could potentially help to reduce the time a patient spends under anaesthetic and reduce the margin for error.” Further, he clarified that while the technology can’t replace the skill and experience of clinicians, it can enhance the process and make it easier to tailor surgeries to individual patients.

In addition to being a valuable tool for surgeons during the operation, augmented reality has proven to be beneficial in healthcare education, including wound care simulation. This technology allows medical students to repeatedly practice anything from stitches to skin grafts for better preparation in real-world scenarios. Plus, the Imperial College researchers believe that, with further refinements, augmented reality will soon be applied in various areas of reconstructive surgery and wound care practices.

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