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Nov 15, 2022

Moving Healthcare to the Metaverse


Moving Healthcare to the Metaverse

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about the metaverse. From Facebook (now Meta!) to gaming, entertainment, socializing, work, and commerce, the metaverse is moving at the speed of light, or that’s how it feels. Healthcare, too, is embracing the adoption of digital technologies. Organizations ranging from hospital chains to fitness companies are now entering into the metaverse space. 

What is the metaverse, and how is it impacting current and future healthcare trends?

Understanding the Metaverse 

The metaverse is a combination of physical, augmented, and virtual reality. Accessed via the Internet, metaverse creates a virtual world experience. The metaverse makes use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and improved levels of connectivity—think 5G networks and beyond. It requires the use of three types of technology:

  • Telepresence, which enables people to be together virtually, even if they are physically apart. 
  • Digital twinning, which is the use of software that uses real-world data to simulate events and processes and predict the outcome. 
  • Blockchain, which enables us to create a distributed internet

Ultimately, the metaverse is the third generation of the internet, and it is shaping up to be an online environment that’s immersive, experiential, and more interactive than anything we currently have. 

Motivation for the Move

Reducing costs while striving to improve patient outcomes are strong motivations for moving healthcare to the metaverse. U.S. national healthcare spending grew by 3.4% in 2021, according to Altarum's monthly Health Sector Economic Indicators (HSEI) briefs. This calculates to almost USD 4.3 trillion, or nearly 20% of the nation’s GDP. 

At the same time, the number of Americans with inadequate access to healthcare tops out at around 32 million, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moving to the metaverse can help healthcare institutions deliver better access and more personalized care to greater numbers of patients, regardless of their location. 

In addition, AR and VR can enable medical suppliers of every ilk to reach healthcare professionals worldwide. That equates to faster service and delivery, better supply logistics, and, ultimately, lower prices that can be passed on to patients and payers. 

A Plethora of Possibilities

Healthcare could move to the metaverse in countless ways. For example, South Korea’s Chosun University Hospital is planning a metaverse clinic to attract foreign and local patients and boost the province’s medical tourism revenue. The site will also offer educational programs for the hospital's foreign medical staff. 

A plethora of possibilities exists that we haven’t yet considered. Some opportunities include:

  • Telepresence is already widely in use in healthcare in the form of telemedicine. Providers participate in telehealth consultations with patients. 
  • Remote patient monitoring (RPM) using wearables and other devices enables healthcare practitioners to track patients’ vitals, improve treatment adherence, and intervene before minor issues develop into health emergencies. 
  • Remote surgical procedures can even be performed using AR and VR, with remarkably successful results. 
  • Using genetic mapping, digital twins could become “test dummies” to trial everything from surgical recovery times to reactions to specialty drugs or long-term treatment outcomes. 
  • Blockchain technology can share data between multiple organizations securely and efficiently, reducing the risk of data theft. Since medical records currently sell on the dark web for up to $100 each, increased security protocols are a critical issue. 

It’s not just in patient care that the metaverse is making inroads. Medical training will become a richer, more participative process, cost less, and require less environmentally-damaging travel. For example, surgical teams can learn new procedures without having to physically be in the same location or even operating on a live patient, according to Accenture’s Digital Health Technology Vision 2022 report.

Developing Breakthrough Technologies

There’s an old saying that “it takes money to make money.” In the same way, it takes technology to achieve new discoveries, and the metaverse has the potential to lead to breakthrough technologies for healthcare. 

According to world-renowned tech expert Bernard Marr, the metaverse has the potential to revolutionize mental health therapies. Psychiatrists and psychotherapists could use the immersive experiences available to treat issues like:

  • PTSD
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Delusions
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations
  • Eating disorders

The technology could also increase access to mental health care for disabled people or patients who face financial or geographic barriers to care. For example, XRHealth offers virtual mental health therapy delivered immersively via a VR headset supplied by the provider. Amelia Virtual Care supports both virtual and in-person VR care. 

Counting the “Cons”

Of course, nothing is without any disadvantages, and this situation is no exception. Potential risks surrounding the move of healthcare to the metaverse include:

  1. Connectivity. The internet was initially designed to provide one-way communication. The lack of consensus on multiple file formats, conventions, and standard systems, is one reason so many two-party video calls are still unreliable. 
  2. Bandwidth. To achieve a functional metaverse that supports full healthcare delivery, we’ll need to connect many new devices to it. Holographic displays, ultra-sonic force field generators (i.e. haptic feedback), VR goggles, and wearable devices that capture muscle signals are just some technological innovations needed to expand the potential for the metaverse in the healthcare industry. 
  3. Privacy Issues. Privacy is already a big elephant in any healthcare room, and even if blockchain improves the security of records, the privacy issue isn’t going away. One of the cornerstones of metaverse healthcare is data collection, and gathering enough data to generate rich, valuable insights is bound to overstep some privacy limits. 

Statista lists “addiction to a simulated reality” as the top concern for internet users in 2021, followed by privacy issues and then mental health issues. When it comes to the crunch, noting the benefits and disadvantages won’t stop healthcare from moving to the metaverse, but it does give organizations a base from which to plan their progress. 

When we consider that in 2021, neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins performed live surgery using an AR headset to give the surgeon an interactive display of the patient’s internal anatomy, it becomes clear that the sky is not even the limit for humanity, if we can harness this technology effectively.