Until very recently, healthcare required physical interactions between patients and clinicians.
However, this is changing fast as the healthcare industry constantly evolves with innovations such as telemedicine, virtual consultations, robotic surgeries, and virtual reality (VR)-enabled medical education being a few such examples.
However, it is the Metaverse – the latest of these technologies – that, while still under development, has perhaps the most underappreciated implications for the healthcare domain which are only just starting to emerge.
The accelerated adoption of remote care, e-commerce, and mobile wallets during the COVID-19 pandemic proved that new technologies could be rapidly adopted and create profound impacts.
In the not-too-distant future, the metaverse will do the same, across areas such as mental health, physiotherapy, operation theatre, patient visits, family visits to patients, medical education and training, remote care, radiology, and payments.
All these use cases promise to disrupt industries and domains in many more ways than we can imagine.
The healthcare industry has been plagued by significant issues of quality, access, high costs, and shortages of clinicians, and it will seek to benefit from this disruptive technology.
One of the most significant implications is that healthcare delivery no longer requires physical interaction between a patient and a clinician for diagnosis, medical treatment, or surgical procedures.
This changed with telemedicine, which digitised a part of the patient-clinician relationship.
Post-telemedicine, AR, and VR technology offered digital healthcare solutions, and today, hospitals are using VR and MR in the operating theatre.
VR is actively used by mental health experts for treating post-traumatic stress.
Meanwhile, Facebook and Microsoft glasses like Oculus and HoloLens are respectively being used in key healthcare digital applications, from the design of medical tools to surgical procedures in the operation theatre.
However, there are important considerations to address, including medical ethics, privacy, patient safety concerns, and regulations.
The adoption of the metaverse in healthcare will not be easy as it has been in the gaming or entertainment industries.
Here are some examples of real-world use cases that we can expect to see from the metaverse in healthcare:
Clinics and consultations
The metaverse could augment medical consultations through a ‘‘virtual clinic’, where patients and physicians can interact with their avatars.
In November 2021, a Canadian organisation, Revitalise, announced that they are developing virtual clinics in the Metaverse, called Revivaland.
Their goal was to allow the patients to attend mental health sessions with qualified health professionals in a virtual environment.
Revivaland also includes its cryptocurrency token that can be used for payment for mental health services, and NFTs that will act as a rewards programme for the completion of a set number of mental health sessions.
The metaverse will replicate the in-person consultation, where clinicians across continents pull apart a 3D model of a patient’s medical condition to arrive at an informed diagnosis.
This type of medical consultation could be accomplished through either AR (where one can superimpose a digital layer on top of one’s physical environment) or VR (where one can enter a completely immersive world).
The change will take time since most clinicians and patients do not own tools to enable this kind of capture yet.
However, switching to video consultations has proven much faster as many clinicians and patients already have PCs or smartphones with cameras.
At present, users can control their avatar using VR goggles and gloves, however more sophisticated and less obtrusive tools – like lightweight glasses and contact lenses – will emerge over the next few years.
Improvements in computer vision, display technology, audio, and sensors will capture patient’s facial expressions, and body language with very little delay.
Transforming family visits
During the recent pandemic, healthcare providers-imposed restrictions on patient visits which caused enormous grief and anxiety for both the family and the patient.
The metaverse will make virtual visits possible for family and friends immediately before or after critical surgery or even in the ICU.
This will naturally provide substantial emotional support for the patient and will even aid in speedy recovery without compromising the patient’s safety.
Medical education and training
The metaverse embraces potential opportunities for creating a new medical educational ecosystem.
This new ecosystem offers new space for communication, provisions to share and create new experiences, and deep immersion, which can play a key role in training hospital staff.
For example, simulation training will help trainees gain an up-close view of surgeons’ procedures enhanced with tactile haptic controls.
AR and VR are already used to train medical students and clinicians all over the world, so in this sense, the metaverse is merely a logical progression.
VR is being used to train clinicians and medical providers by stimulating real procedures and displaying cellular-level data of the human anatomy.
Currently, AR has made its way into the medical school curriculum and has shown a positive outcome in medicine.
Similarly, an amalgamation of these two technologies in the form of the metaverse will augment overall medical education in the coming years.
Medical teachers can use this technology to help students solve clinical problems, perform surgical projects, build creativity, and create a learning space for medical students.
We can imagine a medical student entering a virtual class and witnessing a renowned surgeon trained for a very complex procedure on a 3D replica of a patient.
The metaverse can play a key role in patients suffering from mental health challenges, as both the patient avatar and therapist avatar can interact with each other.
Conditions such as aerophobia are highly amenable for treatment in the metaverse where the conditions can be simulated, and the patient’s reactions monitored safely.
Another area in healthcare, where the metaverse can potentially be beneficial is mental therapy in mental health.
Environments can be personalised to individual patients: VR is already being used by psychologists and psychiatrists in aversion therapy, where patients can interact with situations that cause them anxiety, in safe environments where every aspect of the interaction can be closely monitored and controlled.
The metaverse has an interactive nature and provides a useful ground for online therapy, improves access to therapy for physically challenged people, and renders a life-like experience.
Metaverse psychotherapy will likely prove extremely valuable to individuals with phobias, stress, addiction, eating disorders, psychosis, and other conditions.
For a patient that requires surgery, at least one patient and one surgeon need to be physically present in the OT.
However, the metaverse can help a surgeon who is performing surgery in a rural area or underdeveloped city to collaborate with the best surgeons across the world through their avatars.
Currently, surgeons use technologies such as AR, VR, AI, and minimally invasive surgeries for augmenting patient outcomes.
Leading hospitals and universities use these technologies for surgeries because they offer 3-D views of a patient’s body, and help to interpret surgeries, plan, and perform them.
VR and AR simulation is used for surgical training and is widely used for efficient, safe, and measurable medical training.
However, VR or AR comes with unique technical challenges in the healthcare industry domain.
These challenges include the creation of realistic physical objects and surgical interfaces within a computer-generated space and processing signals for complicated events during surgeries.
NFRs, or ‘non-functional requirements such as security, privacy, performance, usability, scalability, and so on are vital to averting potential disasters – after all, failures associated with mission-critical applications can be hugely expensive and disruptive to businesses, especially in the case of the healthcare industry.
An application going down in a bank or an office may lead to financial loss but in healthcare, it can mean life and death.
The new, virtual world of the metaverse will also surely seem a bit scary to some and pose numerous challenges to overcome.
Some of the challenges include patient safety, security and privacy, identity, interoperability, scalability, high costs, adoption, and payments, addiction to virtual realities, and relationships with the real world.
Whatever the eventual structure of these solutions, they all need to be secure, scalable, and reliable.
People in the real world can visit different places worldwide and take their physical assets from one place to another.
While the metaverse is still in its early stages of evolving, there’s no doubt that the potential to combine the technologies like AI, VR, AR, Internet of Medical Devices, Web 3.0, intelligent cloud, edge, quantum computing, and robotics offers profound new opportunities in healthcare, for both patients and businesses.
But the key question is, can it bring costs down, while we embed these new technologies together to create the new healthcare metaverse, within regulations?
To realise the potential of the metaverse in healthcare, it requires massive infrastructure to function, from uninterrupted 6G to high-tech hardware, glasses, sensors, and other wearables.
Patients may require equipment to adhere to prescribed treatments.
Whether healthcare insurance organisations will be willing to pay for these devices is a question that needs to be addressed.
As with any disruptive technology, the metaverse is certain to face roadblocks with adoption.
Since most of the AR, VR, and MR devices are not lightweight, portable, or affordable, similar challenges are posed to the wide-scale adoption of the metaverse.
In addition to hardware accessibility, another challenge lies in sourcing high-quality and high-performance models that can achieve the right retina display and pixel density for a realistic virtual immersion.
When it comes to healthcare, ‘gamification’ – that is, turning things into games – is restricted largely to wellness and fitness apps.
Gamification can connect and bring healthcare providers and consumers together.
If the applications are interoperable on multiple platforms, people would be able to embrace the metaverse rapidly.
It would witness quick adoption as this would allow operational flexibility for its users.
The metaverse adopts blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies, and it is expected that patients can make their healthcare payments through cryptocurrency as an additional alternative to conventional payment options.
However, this may also be one of the challenges, because not all countries and systems are adopting and accepting cryptocurrencies.
Risks and opportunities
VR gaming addiction tendency is 44 per cent higher than the one related to PC gaming, according to HTC conducted study together with a Chinese university.
The metaverse has an inherent risk of escapism and addiction and hence the possibility that some people will prefer to live in the virtual world compared to the real world is a key issue that needs to be considered.
Just as in any innovative technology, there is an important consideration of “responsible use” which cannot be overemphasised in the case of metaverse.
With social media already witnessing virtual crimes, the metaverse will have its share of lawbreakers too.
Rules and regulations that block a user account will not be sufficient.
A report by Bloomberg Intelligence in December 2021 indicates that the metaverse tech marketplace could approach $800 billion by 2024, and $2.5 trillion by 2030.
The industry has been receiving a tremendous response from different segments, which would transform virtual reality technology and the future.
Today’s metaverse denotes the early stages of security, privacy, and interoperability.
So far, users can only explore the virtual worlds integrated into a single Metaverse evolution and innovations will soon introduce multiple interoperability enabled metaverse projects that interact and complement each other, with appropriate security and privacy principles.
Decentralised blockchain technology and interoperability will together empower the metaverse.
The metaverse may feel like a futuristic concept now, however as the technology matures, it will evolve into what will become like an extension of our physical world – or rather, an ‘extended reality’.
In the future, clinicians will welcome patients inside their virtual offices.
Doctors can meet patients from all over the world that suffer from the same condition, as one-self, becoming an online community, that almost feels real.
As the metaverse is currently evolving, it will require a balanced approach with enhanced security, age-appropriate controls, and the need to maintain privacy to ensure the best experience for all users.
And it must capture principle-focused protections, including awareness, technological methods, and the latest behaviour modelling, to realise better health outcomes and the well-being of humanity.
About the Author
Ramalingeswara (Ram) Rao Balla
Ram is an Enterprise Architect in the TCS Enterprise Growth Group.
He has over 24 years of experience in the IT and public and private health industries, specialising in areas including innovation and enterprise architecture.
The author would like to thank Mansha Dhingra (Content writer, Researcher and Editor at TCS Life Sciences and Healthcare Marketing) for her support in writing this piece
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