Allscripts Healthcare Solutions Inc (MDRX), Google Inc (GOOG): Will Augmented Reality Medical Apps Bridge a Gap in Health Care?

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Tablet usage has increased substantially over the past several years in health care facilities. According to a survey by Manhattan Research, 72% physicians now use tablets in their everyday routines. This has fueled elevated demand for health care reference apps, like athenahealth, Inc (NASDAQ:ATHN)‘s Epocrates and WebMD Health Corp. (NASDAQ:WBMD)‘s Medscape, and mobile electronic health record, or EHR, apps from Allscripts Healthcare Solutions Inc (NASDAQ:MDRX) , Cerner, and other major companies.

Thanks to its built-in camera, motion sensors, touch screen interface, cloud-based connections, and portability, the tablet is a versatile medical tool for which new health care applications are being developed every day.

Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG)

Augmented reality — just like reality, but smarter
One of the most innovative areas of tablet health care is augmented reality, or AR — an extra layer of information that enhances a real-time image with cloud-based data to create a virtual viewfinder. By simply holding up a tablet’s camera to a patient or an open body cavity, an image can be scanned and pertinent data can be directly downloaded onto a digital overlay — creating an “enhanced reality” straight out of the realm of sci-fi.

Last year, Sheffield Hallam University became the first higher-education institution to use AR technology in health care education. Nursing students were instructed to use an app to view a dummy on a bed, and a living patient, played by an actor, would appear on the AR overlay to give students a taste of a real-life situation and to test their bedside manner.

German research institute Fraunhofer MEVIS went a big step further and created an app that allows surgeons to use the iPad as a real-time viewfinder during surgery. Holding the iPad’s camera up to a patient’s body lets the doctor see a digital overlay of key blood vessels. In the past, doctors needed to memorize the exact locations of these key vessels to avoid accidentally cutting them.

Last month, this technology was showcased for the first time in a liver surgery, and the details were documented by Reuters.

A new battleground for Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG)

At the center of this evolution in AR tech is Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL). The iPad’s unified operating system and hardware, which are identical among units in the same generation, make it the easiest platform to test and develop software for. Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android, by comparison, is installed on a fragmented universe of tablets with a wide array of hardware configurations — making it more difficult to develop reliable apps for.

However, the arrival of AR apps could shift the health care hardware market in Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG)’s favor. Although AR apps on the iPad have proven useful as teaching and surgical tools, it has one major flaw — it isn’t hands-free. While that might not be a major problem for a nurse tending to a patient, it is a major handicap for surgeons relying on Fraunhofer MEVIS’ surgical app. An assistant must hold up the iPad for the surgeon — a clumsy arrangement that could obstruct the surgical procedure instead.

Will Glass be the preferred platform for AR app developers?
That’s where Google Glass comes in. If these AR apps can be installed on Glass’ heads-up display, it could become as standard a tool in ORs as scrubs or scalpels. Unlike Android tablets, Glass comes directly from Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG), so it uses a unified software and hardware system that will be easier to develop apps for.

Startups like Augmedix and established companies like drchrono are already exploring the possibilities of AR Glass apps for bedside care and surgeries. With that kind of medical presence, Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) could eventually replace iPads in hospitals just as iPads replaced traditional PCs in homes.

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