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Next generation interfaces

Published 26 July 2018

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality systems hold special promise in healthcare, improving safety and convenience, while offering entirely new models of delivering health and care.

How well are clinicians being served by current medical and clinical software? It depends on who you ask! A recent RACGP survey found that 80% of GPs are satisfied with the way that they use technology in their patient-oriented work. That’s a high rate of satisfaction by most standards, but there is clearly room for improvement.

One thing that both the “satisfied” and “dissatisfied” cohorts would agree upon is that efforts to improve the usability of medical and clinical software will always be worthwhile. Improved usability reduces cognitive load, enhances efficiency, is more forgiving of user errors, and helps clinicians to be more “present” for their patients.


Designers of medical and clinical software face a number of challenges, many of which can adversely impact usability. One challenge, shared with many other domains, is complexity. Since the tasks users perform on medical and clinical software are complex, this complexity is reflected in the appearance of the interface.

Other challenges are more distinctive of this domain. Safety is absolutely paramount in medical and clinical software, which imposes testing and change management burdens, and limits the scope for interface features like text auto-completion. It may be amusing when your messaging app auto-completes a word incorrectly, but the consequences of such behaviour in clinical software could be severe. Moreover, dedicated medical devices may be limited in terms of display size, and the demands of hygiene and patient care may require that they be operated with little or no physical contact when interacting with patients.

Traditional approaches to improving user experiences include carefully observing the use of these systems in practice, as well as specialised laboratory testing that tracks eye movements and mouse clicks. These approaches may sound modest, but are in reality very powerful. These are the techniques that have yielded most of the user experience gains that we take for granted today.

New realities, new possibilities

Even greater advances in usability may become possible with the implementation of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to healthcare. AR superimposes a display over the user’s visual field, whereas VR creates an entire immersive world for the viewer.

The video below offers a particularly vivid demonstration of the potential application of AR technologies. The Silver Chain healthcare group is conducting trials of AR headsets in Western Australia to deliver home-based healthcare, as depicted here:

It’s worth noting in this video the way that the AR system incorporates telehealth functions, and also features natural language processing and gesture interfaces as components; technologies that are promising interface technologies in their own right.

The vividness and immediacy afforded by AR systems does more than just enhance convenience; other AR applications promise improved medical trainingsafer surgical procedures, and improved medications safety for consumers.

VR systems are likewise finding multiple applications for improving healthcare, such as pain management, graded exposure therapies for phobias, and cognitive rehabilitation. An aged care centre in Connecticut is using VR systems to improve engagement and help to stimulate memories in dementia patients:

Beyond the interface

As these examples suggest, new interface technologies will do far more than just make existing healthcare interactions easier, safer and more pleasant for patients and providers alike. These technologies offer the prospect of entirely new ways of delivering care, providing new healthcare capabilities that were undreamt of just a few years ago.

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