A brain surgeon's perspective on 5G and AR
by Blogs & Opinions
Hospitals and medical centers continue to push the envelope on using new technologies
to enhance patient care and increase the productivity of the overall facility.
While the medical field is embracing new technologies to help doctors help their patients,
the emerging sophistication of these technologies is not always plug-and-play. One of the
latest buzzwords in the health care industry is augmented reality (AR). Yet most medical
professionals are finding barriers to success. Much like the multiple-year effort it took to
migrate paper medical records to their super-functional electronic formats (Electronic
Health Records), many experts across multiple domains need to align on methodologies
and use cases before AR can become mainstream.
A perspective from the healthcare side
A recent panel discussion in Dallas brought to light some of the challenges that the
healthcare industry faces and how 5G-based wireless connectivity might be able to address
some of the issues. The panel included brain surgeon Dr. Kalil Abdullah, who practices
and teaches aspiring surgeons at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Dr.
Abdullah shared with the attendees a sample case a video showing something being
removed from the brain cavity. The footage brought an uneasy stir in the room until he asked those still present to answer a question, "Can you identify the part of the brain displayed on the screen by the surgical microscope?" Aside from a few chuckles, the audience offered no responses.
Dr. Abdullah's following point, though, brought laser-focus to the case for AR. He stated that even a highly experienced brain surgeon with years of training could
not answer this question without more information. He explained that equipping the surgical
microscope with technologies like AR can overlay information like case details and
progress on the live video.
In addition to the obvious training benefits, surgeons viewing
an AR-assisted procedure would have all the necessary information to understand what
is happening at any point in time in a surgical procedure. Brain surgeons, according to
Dr. Abdullah, plan and train intensely and develop highly detailed protocols for their
Cases. By linking additional information via AR into the field of vision, surgeons could
develop and follow a clear plan of attack on each surgical case.
The challenge in making this vision possible is the availability of and close collaboration
with a set of technologies that can:
Connect the surgical microscopes to a centralized medical application;
Transfer large amounts of data created by live video feeds to that application;
Analyze those live video feeds (in real time) to identify targeted objects in the video;
Pull out the information to overlay for that object in the video;
Send the overlay information back to the surgical microscope to create the augmented
and, all of this must happen wirelessly. It has a lot of moving parts for a mission-critical
A perspective from the technology side
5G's low-latency connection can support the AR-equipped surgical microscope in a highly
effective wireless operating suite. However, like the surgeon walking in on the case and
trying to figure out the current status, the 5G panel pointed out that the industry needs
more details and discussions to articulate how 5G can be of benefit in the operating room
(OR). They postulated that AR in the OR would likely require edge computing to ensure
the low-latency connections required by AR-enabled microscopes. Multi-access edge
computing (MEC), in general, is becoming an integral part of the 5G technology
ecosystem to enable mission-critical applications that require ultra-fast response time.
While MEC will help run applications quickly and 5G will transfer the data quickly, the
alignment gap is the availability of the 5G connectivity inside the operating room.
The good news is that the industry leaders in the standards bodies, vendor community
and service providers acknowledge this gap, and are working toward a variety of
solutions to bridge it.
Equipping surgeons with augmented reality during surgical procedures would help them better treat patients. When AR-assisted surgery becomes possible, I will not hesitate to let
surgeons leverage this new capability during my treatment. In the meantime, the medical
experts and global technology authorities need to get together to understand, define and
align on the requirements that can enable low-latency AR-based applications in the