Physiotherapist Anna Osen Byberg (wearing a HoloLens augmented reality headset) seen here working with orthopaedist Ivar Hanssen at Helgeland Hospital. Hanssen can both observe the patient and instruct the physiotherapist in real time. Photo courtesy of Helgeland Hospital Trust

Treating patients ‘in hospital’ – even from far away

Imagine being treated ‘in hospital’ via an advanced VR headset! Researchers are now making this possible with the help of local ‘health rooms’ and so-called ‘augmented reality’. Results from their experiments have so far proved to be quite promising.

Research is revealing that some patients living far away from specialist health service provision choose not to use these services because of the long distances they have to travel.

Municipal health services and hospitals in Helgeland in Nordland county are joining forces with a research team to find out how they can work together to alleviate the situation. 

“Our aim is to move the health services closer to where people live”, say SINTEF researchers Kari Sand and Merete Rørvik. “We’ll achieve this by testing out an entirely new addition to health service provision that we call a ‘health room’”, they add.

One of the key elements of the new system is Microsoft’s HoloLens headset technology, which employs a combination of augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) to enable a remote health worker to ‘see’ through the eyes of a colleague wearing the headset.

Local ‘hospitals’ with HoloLens headsets

A health room might be a real room located somewhere in the local community, such as a GP surgery, care home or other municipal facility.

“The idea is that it will contain medical equipment and technology that offer patients, next-of-kin, municipal health workers and the specialist health services new ways of interacting, as well as flexible systems enabling access to expertise and equipment”, says Sand.

“Our aim is to move the health services closer to where people live.

“We’re in the process of running a pilot project in Rødøy municipality to test how the system works”, says Rørvik. “We’ll be experimenting with services such as consultations using the HoloLens headsets”, she says.

“For example, an orthopaedist at his or her desk in Helgeland Hospital, with the assistance of an on-site physiotherapist or general practitioner, will be able to examine a patient with an open fracture in Rødøy”, says Rørvik.

Less unnecessary travel

The need to develop this kind of service is the result of Norwegian geography. The sparsely populated areas and island communities of the Helgeland region are a good example.

“The health room service will be available to all ages, but will be all the more welcome to the elderly and chronically sick, who will no longer have to spend a whole day travelling for minor examinations and follow-up consultations”, says Sand.

“The most important function of a health room will be to prevent patients from having to spend a great deal of time travelling to so-called ‘ten-minute’ consultations when they can get the same service locally”, says Rørvik. “However, if you have to undergo a major operation, of course you will still have to be admitted to hospital”, she adds.

There are also indications that a health room will mean that fewer patients will have to be admitted to hospital simply ‘for safety’s sake’.

Multiple services

These days, it is important to be restructuring the health service in a way that ensures that patients have equal access to care, whether they live in an island community, or just a stone’s throw from a municipal centre or a university hospital”, says Sand.

Participants in the research project have submitted many ideas about the services they want to see tested in the health room.

“They include everything from psychiatry and chemotherapy, to neurological examinations and the treatment of skin problems and open fractures”, says Sand. We envisage that the rooms will offer scanners and x-ray machines, as well as blood transfusion equipment”, says Sand.

A new health service

During the project period, the health room model will be tested out on different patient groups and for a variety of patient pathways.

“The insights we obtain will be used to construct a new service model incorporating systems that govern aspects such as financing and personnel roles and responsibilities”, says Rørvik, emphasising at the same time that the project is not being driven by economic considerations.

“However, nor will the health room model make healthcare provision any more expensive”, she assures us.

The municipalities of Brønnøy and Dønna are also participating in the project together with Rødøy municipality and Helgeland Hospital. The project’s technology partner is the ‘gazelle’ company Checkware in Trondheim, which supplies digital aids for patient reporting. The ‘gazelle’ label is awarded to smaller companies exhibiting rapid and successful growth.

The research project is called ‘Helserom Helgeland’ (Health Room Helgeland). It has a four-year term and will be concluded in 2025.