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Ready patient one: The healthcare metaverse is coming 

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The world is bracing itself as headlines hit about the metaverse coming to life –  changing every aspect of life as we know it. But what does this mean for healthcare? More than you might think, it would seem…

The metaverse was a science fiction, far away notion just a couple of years ago, fit for the cinema screens or futuristic documentaries. But as recent headlines have promised, it is fast becoming a part of our day-to-day lives, and will transform most everything we do. 

We’ve already seen how the metaverse will change our workplaces, our social lives, and how we do business. But what will it do for healthcare? Quite a lot, it turns out…

What is the Metaverse?

Though the word is suddenly on all our lips, there is understandably a lot of confusion around what is actually is.

And that’s because we don’t fully know yet. 

But what we do know is that it will replace the internet, or become another ‘version’ of it, in which we are transported virtually into another space, for socialising, for business, for hospital visits – for everything. 

It will be the next step in artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and of course, virtual reality (VR), and we will ultimately be stepping into a brave new world in which our reality is made up of them all combined. 

The metaverse for healthcare 

Patient care is already going virtual. There’s no shortage of virtual hospital wards, or AI and VR in some levels of treatment (largely in mental health, at this stage).

There are even headlines about nurses being asked to wear smart goggles to communicate with colleagues and carry our admin tasks via a virtual world. But the metaverse is ready to take healthcare to a very different level. 

Telepresence 

Perhaps the most obvious aspect is teleporting people into a communal space allowing people to be together virtually, even while we’re apart physically. This may be done with avatars, or a 3D image of each person, which moves, talks and appears present as much as in real life. This would allow patients to access medical professionals in a virtual world, and would lead to improved services and waiting times. 

In healthcare there is also telemedicine – which will undoubtedly accelerate in the metaverse. 

Digital twinning

Through a real-time virtual representation of a real-world physical system, healthcare can be provided through a supposed “indistinguishable” digital counterpart – such as system simulation, integration, testing, monitoring, and maintenance.

Blockchain 

In medical care, blockchain could act as a time saver and help things to move faster and more efficiently. Blockchain is essentially a system in which a record of transactions made in bitcoin (or another cryptocurrency) – which are  are maintained across several computers. Crypto metaverses are immersive virtual worlds with immense social and financial potential, and have the ability to drastically improve various aspects of healthcare too. 

The “next horizon” in healthcare

A report from Accenture claimed that more than  80% of healthcare executives expect the metaverse to have a positive impact on their organisations. It even claimed that the metaverse will be the “next horizon” in healthcare. 

Rich Birhanzel, global industry health lead at Accenture, said, “The metaverse seems futuristic, but it’s taking shape today. 

“We’re envisioning the opportunities it presents to improve how people manage their health data, engage with healthcare organizations, and how these organizations support people through their health and wellness journeys. 

“Healthcare enterprises that start making strategic investments to build a high-performing digital technology foundation now will be the ones to help shape the next generation of healthcare — creating greater access, better experiences, more trust and improved outcomes while keeping people at the heart of it.”

“The metaverse could transform how people work, shop, communicate and consume content,” Rupantar Guha, an analyst at research firm GlobalData, told Medical Device Network.

Kaveh Safavi, M.D., J.D. and a senior managing director in Accenture Health, commented: “Leading healthcare enterprises have made good progress investing in a digital technology foundation for healthcare. 

The next horizon is the metaverse, where we can experience the internet of place and the internet of ownership in healthcare. 

For example, surgical teams learning new procedures without having to be physically in the same operating room. 

“Or when you are traveling, being able to securely provide your medical information to a caregiver without having to prove where you live or authenticate with a physician.”

The FDA has a framework for vetting virtual reality, augmented reality, digital therapeutics and artificial intelligence in medicine.

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