Opinion

Metaverse: The Next Healthcare Frontier?

Developing metaverse-like experiences in healthcare could be used to address multiple health accessibility issues.

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In the last few weeks, we’ve had two tech giants, Facebook - now renamed to Meta - and Microsoft, each present their respective views of the Metaverse future and how they plan to pave the way forward.

What is “The Metaverse”?

We won’t go too deep into what the Metaverse is (for a deeper dive check out Matthew Ball’s primer, or read/watch Ready Player One). According to both Meta and Microsoft, the Metaverse is defined as the next evolution of the internet, one where we’re not just looking at experiences (e.g. a 2D conversation with a friend, a game with friends) but we’re immersed in them, in a similar way as we would if they were in the physical world.


“The next platform and medium will be even more immersive, an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. It’s a successor to the mobile internet — a set of interconnected digital spaces that lets you do things you can’t do in the physical world. Importantly, it’ll be characterized by social presence, the feeling that you’re right there with another person, no matter where in the world you happen to be”.

Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook


“It’s a digital space, inhabited by digital representations of people, places, and things… It’s an internet that we can actually interact with, like we do in the physical world”.
Microsoft


The closest thing most of us have experienced of the Metaverse is through gaming or virtual/augmented reality devices. The key difference though, is that we still haven’t experienced a truly ‘present’ feel - and that’s a big part of what differentiates the Metaverse from any VR/AR experience you may had. Part of what we need to do, according to Yaser Sheikh, director of Facebook Reality Labs is build lifelike avatars of ourselves:


What could the Metaverse mean for the future of healthcare?

For most of our lives, healthcare delivery (i.e. how we receive our healthcare) entailed a physical interaction between ourselves and a healthcare professional who provided a diagnosis, treatment, or operation. The introduction of telehealth, wearables, digital health solutions and home testing has already started changing the patient-physician relationship from a predominantly physical one to a predominantly digital one. This shifting paradigm, is at the cusp of an even bigger disruption, leading the move to Healthcare 3.0, where-in our experience with the healthcare system and the feedback loops that helps us prevent or manage disease become effectively seamless in our daily lives. The Metaverse will play a big part in that next phase. Microsoft’s Hololens technology for example has already been explored in non-operative and surgical case-studies as a means to provide medical care remotely. NVIDIA is making its move in the space with its Omniverse platform an “easily extensible, open platform built for virtual collaboration and real-time physically accurate simulation.”

This is a promising concept for healthcare, which thrives on interaction between the physician and the patient. Creators, designers, researchers, and engineers can connect major design tools, assets, and projects to collaborate and iterate in a shared virtual space.” The platform has already been adapted across multiple industries including architecture and engineering, media and entertainment, manufacturing, and supercomputing, creating a strong foundation to help the leap into the healthcare industry.

Developing Metaverse-like experiences in healthcare could be used to address issues like access to healthcare caused by geographical or mobility limitations, a variety of mental health applications, more engaged virtual wellness applications and even play a big part in the loneliness epidemic of both elder and younger populations.  

Remote surgical operations

Surgeons use virtual reality to practice surgery


Facebook/Meta has incredible potential to redefine healthcare, especially as it already has such a robust and proven social media infrastructure. Its latest video shows the company’s incredible progress with haptic glove technology, allowing the user to experience the sense of touch in the virtual world. The demonstration shows users interacting in the virtual space and even playing precision and dexterity heavy games such as Jenga.


Intuitive Surgical, the company behind the Da Vinci robotic-assisted surgery system could instantly benefit from the evolution of haptic gloves and the Metaverse.

Medical education and training

VR is already used today to train doctors and medical staff by simulating real-world procedures and enabling cellular level detail of the human anatomy. AR has made its way into Medical school curriculum, a positive improvement in the transition between theoretical to practical medicine. Another interesting learning application for medical training could be a similar approach used by chess players - retracing the steps of a great endgame from another player’s winning strategy. Could medical students get a change to learn through the eyes of a top surgeon’s most difficult operations? Could experienced surgeons replay failed operations to find out what they could have done better? It is not inconceivable that the Metaverse could become the most important surgical training tool in our arsenal.


Metaverse and fitness



Connected fitness made home workouts cool again - especially during the lockdown. Virtual experiences whether through virtual reality or augmented reality are largely restricted to fitness apps at the moment. present, for instance AR is used to deliver smarter workouts with guidance from virtual instructors. One example, Zwift, creates virtual worlds akin to video games including recently hosting a virtual Tour de France with pro cyclists competing in a digital version of the postponed annual event. Recently acquired, Supernatural makes movement-based high-impact cardio virtual reality experiences. And TikTok is now leveraging augmented reality (AR) to create virtual workouts.

Here’s a sneak peak of how Meta envisions fitness in the Metaverse:



Therapy, meet the Metaverse

Considering that we need quicker, cheaper therapeutic solutions to address the escalating demand for mental health therapy, the Metaverse could play a big role. On-demand, virtual immersive therapy experiences could present a lot of promise to address this problem. That could mean developing cognitive behavioral therapy experiences, AI therapists, or stress management experiences such as virtual mindfulness training sessions. Besides the accessibility benefit, there’s clinical evidence that these experiences could work.

For example, AppliedVR recently received FDA approval for the successful reduction of pain using virtual reality therapy, without pain medication. Oxford professor Daniel Freeman demonstrated a 38% decrease in anxiety after six weeks using VR therapy.

The Metaverse and the Future of Aging

Elder populations could also benefit from the Metaverse. In a rapidly advancing digital world older adults that are cognitively, visually and mobility impaired, the world has increasingly more opportunities for them to engage with it. Several agetech companies have already employed VR/AR including XR health which offers rehabilitation therapy and Rendever which offers virtual entertainment experiences.

On top of this, the Metaverse could offer older adults a way to have more lifelike remote communication, with people who are geographically distant from them. There are numerous ways this could benefit older adults. For one, it could play a big part in curving the loneliness challenge, that goes beyond just staring into a two dimensional screen. More importantly, better, more lifelike communication could greatly improve the effectiveness of telehealth.

Yet another unique and interesting implication of how the Metaverse could impact our lives with respect to aging, is in the preservation of lost loved ones.

Companies like Storyfile allow you to record videos of yourself telling your life story, with the purpose of leaving a legacy for your offspring.


Personal AI is building technology that allows you to record your memories with the purpose of using AI for later recall.

But these are just teasers of what’s ahead - virtual lookalikes of ourselves, preserved forever as our legacy in the Metaverse, for our family, friends and community to engage with, long after we are gone.

Challenges

There are key challenges that companies building in this space will encounter. For example, crossing the regulatory barrier. Numerous clinical trials and use-cases will have to be done in order to validate not just the efficacy but also the safety of this new technology.


And as always, addressing data interoperability while preserving safety in an entirely new world will be a hot topic.

The Metaverse will undoubtedly present opportunities to create new avenues that enable new populations, underserved populations or populations undergoing lifestyle changes due to the new remote reality of life, to stay engaged with maintaining and improving their health.



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