MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY CONSTANTLY pushes boundaries with its innovations. Over the years, we’ve seen disruptions like 3D bio-printing; the Internet of Medical Things; virtual reality for mental health; robotic surgery and nanomedicine – precision healthcare at a molecular level.
Early in the pandemic, telemedicine took center stage as patients and healthcare workers turned to technology out of necessity, but it remains to be seen if its popularity will last.
It was also during the pandemic that Microsoft experimented with its mixed reality (MR) headset, the HoloLens 2. The headset enables surgeons to view 3D holographic images of a patient, obtained from X-rays or CT scans, and supports hand gestures and voice commands.
Recently, at its annual Ignite conference in March, the company announced Microsoft Mesh, a mixed-reality platform built on Azure that can be accessed on the HoloLens as well as other VR headsets, smartphones, PCs, Macs and tablets, making it more mainstream.
The HoloLens 2 project was led by Professor Thomas Gregory who used the original HoloLens for its first MR surgery back in 2017. He brought together 15 surgeons across 13 countries to perform a series of MR orthopedic operations. Shoulder surgeries were chosen because it requires 3D planning and modeling of the shoulder. Professor Stephen Roche, orthopedic surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital and the University of Cape Town in South Africa participated in three surgeries; one in South Africa and assistance with two others in France and Germany.
“Technology is playing a bigger role in surgery, research, and healthcare and certainly during Covid-19, where trainees have not been able to operate, this has highlighted the use and need for technology in training and teaching,” says Roche.
The HoloLens 2 lets us manipulate images in real-time so intraoperative findings can be checked with surgical planning, he adds.
“It allows us to access the internet during surgery and more importantly, we can bring a surgeon into the theater virtually for advice, which would be a massive benefit for a continent like Africa, with many of our colleagues working in poorlyresourced areas.”
Another company targeting disadvantaged communities in South Africa is a start-up called Robots Can Think, which adapted during Covid-19 by 3D-printing personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers.
At Robots Can Think, we strive to use AI for good, to place AI in a meaningful way in the hands of all, from Sandton to Kagiso, to deep rural Eastern Cape. – Natalie Raphil
Natalie Raphil, founder of Robots Can Think, says that during level 5 of the lockdown in South Africa, when imports and exports were at a standstill and PPE was in demand, she read about healthcare workers using cloth to cover their face and nose due to PPE delays.
“I have access to a 3D-printer and decided to print face shields and masks with the 3D-printing material I had available. I then distributed them to medical staff in public hospitals, those in Alexandra in Johannesburg and so on,” says Raphil.
Raphil has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI) from Stanford University and started Robots Can Think three years ago with a current focus on the medical and healthcare sectors. After questioning the inclusivity of AI for the visually and hearing impaired, she realized things needed to change.
The start-up came up with an AI module that is fitted on to existing walking sticks, and once activated, assists the visually-impaired to navigate outdoors.
“The device captures real-time images and the AI then recognizes objects such as traffic lights, traffic light colors, how many vehicles/ pedestrians (essentially objects) are in front of the visually-impaired, all the while navigating them to their final destination.”
The device then either communicates back to the visually-impaired via speech through a Bluetooth device or via sensory pulses emitted from the device to the hand holding the stick.
The AI walking stick is still in a testing phase, and runs on proprietary software that includes image recognition, image/text to speech, and text/speech to sensory conversion software, hosted on-premise.
Raphil credits Robots Can Think’s partner, All Round Tech, for its engineering genius in developing the AI module for walking sticks. Once approved, it will be made available to purchase; supplied to medical organizations; and will be donated to the needy.
Over the next two years, Robots Can Think will focus on exploring medical tech to enhance the continent’s adoption of AI, invent products that are easily accessible to all and continue to use AI for good, says Raphil.
“At Robots Can Think, we strive to use AI for good, to place AI in a meaningful way in the hands of all, from Sandton to Kagiso, to deep rural Eastern Cape in South Africa.”
BY NAFISA AKABOR