Augmented reality (AR) is a new human-computer interaction technology that combines virtual reality, computer vision, and computer networks. With the rapid advancement of the medical field towards intelligence and data visualisation, AR systems are becoming increasingly popular in the medical field because they can provide doctors with clear enough medical images and accurate image navigation in practical applications. However, it has been discovered that different display types of AR systems have different effects on doctors' perception of the image after virtual-real fusion during the actual medical application. If doctors cannot correctly perceive the image, they may be unable to correctly match the virtual information with the real world, which will have a significant impact on their ability to recognise complex structures. This paper uses Citespace, a literature analysis tool, to visualise and analyse the research hotspots when AR systems are used in the medical field. A visual analysis of the 1163 articles retrieved from the Web of Science Core Collection database reveals that display technology and visualisation technology are the key research directions of AR systems at the moment. This paper categorises AR systems based on their display principles, reviews current image perception optimisation schemes for various types of systems, and analyses and compares different display types of AR systems based on their practical applications in the field of smart medical care so that doctors can select the appropriate display types based on different application scenarios. Finally, the future development direction of AR display technology is anticipated in order for AR technology to be more effectively applied in the field of smart medical care. The advancement of display technology for AR systems is critical for their use in the medical field, and the advantages and disadvantages of various display types should be considered in different application scenarios to select the best AR system. © 2023 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.