London hospitals are testing Microsoft’s HoloLens technology to reduce the number of doctors exposed to patients with COVID-19, in a program that could be expanded across the National Health Service if it’s successful.
A doctor wearing the augmented-reality goggles can broadcast images and audio from a patient examination back to colleagues outside the room using Microsoft’s Teams video conferencing app. This minimizes the number of health-care workers who are exposed, reduces the amount of protective equipment needed and helps patients get better access to specialists, who can remote in, according to James Kinross, a surgeon and lecturer at St. Mary’s Hospital who’s behind the program.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in adoption of tech platforms that allow patients and doctors to see one another without spreading disease. More than 100 NHS staff members have died during the outbreak, according to the BBC, which has been tracking their deaths, and many more have fallen ill.
“We are going to be living in a COVID environment for at least another year, possibly longer,” Kinross said in an interview. “We need sustainable solutions to get us through.”
The Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which includes St. Mary’s, is working with four other U.K. hospitals to deploy HoloLens in their high-risk wards. The devices have reduced the time staff are spending exposed to the disease by as much as 83%, according to data provided by Microsoft.
Kinross was already working on surgical applications for HoloLens when Imperial College shut down research and academic programs to focus on treating coronavirus patients earlier this year.
“We felt that we had a really massive problem — that we didn’t have enough PPE and we were going to be overrun by patients and we had to completely restructure the way we deliver care,” Kinross said. “When you have massive challenges, you have to innovate.”
Working with Microsoft and Philip Pratt, a former quantitative analyst who’s switched to robotic surgery research, Kinross’s team focused on Microsoft’s “remote assist” feature that lets users interact with Teams. Other hospitals working on the pilot project share information about technical hurdles and discuss ethical questions around using the technology, he said.
The rollout hasn’t been perfect. Doctors found their protective equipment was blocking the device’s sensors and had to be modified. They also had to connect them to the NHS network in a way that complied with its data-governance rules.
The HoloLens can cost about 3,000 pounds ($3,661) apiece from resellers. Smartphones could run a video chat application, but they aren’t hands-free and are easily contaminated. HoloLens makes it easier to add more participants to conversations and bring up medical records and X-rays. It also has a sound-reducing feature that helps keep confidential conversations private, said Kinross.
He’s planning to start a formal trial to gather data in the coming weeks and make a case for widespread use of the device across the NHS this year.
“If we can demonstrate that this keeps people safe and it reduces your PPE consumption and it’s effective, then we don’t need to reinvent the wheel — the tech exists,” he said. “It’s a lot easier than rolling out a vaccine.”