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August 3, 2022
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What is the Metaverse and why Does it Matter to Healthcare?

What is the Metaverse?

The term ‘metaverse’ was coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash. It refers to a virtual universe that exists online and serves as an alternative reality for its participants. The metaverse is created by combining virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

This virtual reality environment is interactive and immersive, and allows users to experience a world that is different from the real world.

It is a shared online experience that mimics real physical presence. The metaverse can be accessed through devices and software, and doesn’t require users to be in close geographical proximity.

The Realm of the Metaverse

“This is a new world that is advancing daily, and our knowledge grows with the innovators who are building these new Metaverses. It is possible to create a sustainable and affordable paradigm in health care, and health leaders need to be part of its creation.” Dr. Jane Thomason

Many advanced technologies work in harmony to create the metaverse. In a space where it is conceivable to 3D-model virtually anything, digital twins are utilized. These are virtual models of physical objects or people, generated using real-world data and with the ability to continually learn about their real-world versions.

To enable these avatars to interact without the need for close physical proximity, telepresence is required. This is known as telemedicine in the health industry, which has become more familiar and useful during the COVID-19 pandemic. Telemedicine can be brought into the realm of the metaverse using virtual reality headsets, which creates a more realistic experience than web- or telephone-based telemedicine.

The metaverse offers alternative ways to communicate and interact, and does not rely on traditional cash-based systems. This allows for novel ways of trading and exchanging value. Blockchain, which underpins cryptocurrency, is an encrypted database that enables the monetization of data in a way that is considered secure. Nonfungible tokens (NFTs) are digital tokens that are unique and stored on a blockchain. They can be used to represent ownership and can be exchanged for value in the metaverse. NFTs also have the potential to store patient data securely.

Exploring the Possibilities

Patient-centric care is paramount and healthcare applications in the metaverse have the potential to integrate well with this paradigm.

The healthcare metaverse has considerable potential for improving patient care and delivering medical education in multiple areas.

Also, in the preventative medicine sphere, its power could be leveraged to help digitally literate people take control of their health in areas such as exercise and healthy eating while rewarding them for learning and sharing information.  

Healthcare in the Metaverse: Are There any Benefits?

Virtual reality teleconsulting boasts several prospective benefits. Patients who live in remote areas or who are disabled may find it difficult to attend medical appointments. Providing a more realistic experience for these patients without them having to leave their homes could be advantageous. Care costs could be reduced and hospital workflow efficiency increased in non-emergency circumstances where a hospital can be attended virtually.

Provision of mental health care may especially benefit from this enhanced form of virtual communication, particularly as the environment could be optimized for each person to aid relaxation and comfort. Support groups could be conducted via the metaverse, which would allow patients to conceal their identity if they wish, perhaps reducing anxiety and stigma.

Virtual communication between patients and physicians could be improved via the metaverse, and physicians could collect data without being physically present. In cardiology, for example, ECG and blood pressure data from devices used at home could be processed via the metaverse. For patients, this could mean quicker access to results and information about their condition.

AccuVein® has developed a device that projects images of a person’s vasculature onto their skin in real time. This helps improve accuracy when performing venepuncture, and saves time and improves the patient experience.

Even more ambitious research is currently underway, including the development of a digital twin skin which receives information from a sensor in its real-life counterpart. The aim is to be able to individualize medication doses and monitor treatment based on the data generated, as well as utilize the digital twin as a model for wound healing.  

Surgical patients stand to benefit from the metaverse, as AR and VR could be combined with traditional imaging modalities to provide a clearer vision of the individual patient’s anatomy. Additionally, surgeons in remote locations could use the immersive experience to assist and provide guidance in real-time during operations.

Patient safety is the most important consideration for any new medical innovation, including those taking place in the virtual world. Any new healthcare technology or practice must be supported by strong scientific rationale and evidence.

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Gamified Learning

Amid growing demand for remote education, and with AR and VR already firmly embedded in the gaming world, using gamified learning as a platform for medical education seems a logical step, and an example of where the metaverse could have a profound impact. AR can provide a low-risk, hands-on learning experience through modeling of patients and simulations of the surgical environment. Learning can also be made reward-based, for example by awarding NFTs to recognize successful acquisition of knowledge.

Education will be transformed into an immersive experience where learning is fun, success is rewarded, and data analytics target precision learning.

Already, extended reality has been used to facilitate lung cancer surgical training in Korea. Participants in disparate locations use avatars to observe surgery in a ‘smart’ operating theater while simultaneously conducting real-time discussion. This allows for accurate learning without the need for international travel, and overcomes issues with the limited physical space in an operating theatre.  

Collaborative Working

Aside from formal learning, the metaverse could enable and promote collaboration and information exchange between healthcare providers. Realistic virtual meetings would be possible and tools such as digital whiteboards could prove useful. Ranking and rewarding participants could again be used to incentivize and encourage participation.  

Challenges and Risks

The metaverse has the potential to revolutionize healthcare, but only if the practical, legal, and ethical hurdles can be overcome. Although technologies such as digital therapeutics are changing the face of healthcare, there is some way to go before digital advancements allow the delivery of healthcare via the metaverse to become commonplace.

With these developments there are likely to be issues with interoperability, i.e., the capability of different healthcare systems to meaningfully share data with each other, which is required for a smooth user experience.

As the metaverse evolves it is likely to accrue a vast amount of data, and in the healthcare realm much of this will be personal or sensitive information. Patient confidentiality is important for the relationship between patients and healthcare providers. With concerns about privacy and cyber security, new legal safeguards will be needed to reduce risks and protect patients.

Further legal considerations include the use of NFTs, which are not currently legislated for in many jurisdictions. Technology is under development to allow payers to adapt their methods of reimbursement, allowing movement away from cash-based systems.

Regulatory Momentum

There will need to be strong regulation around healthcare in the virtual world to ensure safety and build public trust. Some components, for example virtual reality goggles, could be classified as medical devices, which are already regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Extended reality is already coming under regulatory consideration in the US, where the FDA’s Medical Extended Reality Program seeks to address scientific gaps and challenges such as lack of validation methods for consumer-grade products in the clinical context, and lack of assessment tools for factors affecting safety and efficacy in diagnostic and surgical applications.

Despite the evolving regulatory landscape, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. The lack of geographical barriers in the metaverse makes regulatory development more complex.

Watch this Space

The metaverse has moved out of the realms of science fiction and is rapidly integrating itself into the healthcare environment. We have seen how this exciting and dynamic concept can be implemented in healthcare systems, and how it has the potential to improve the lives of patients. Of course, there are practical and legal challenges to overcome, but with several companies already actively developing the necessary technology, the gateway to the metaverse is now open.

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About the author

Dr. Emily Atkinson

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