(VRfun18) The Future of Healthcare in the Metaverse

While medicine has traditionally been a hands-on encounter, the pandemic has rapidly accelerated the adoption of remote care technologies. Before COVID-19, a reported 43% of healthcare facilities were known to offer telehealth services. In 2020, we saw this percentage rise to 95%.

Across the globe, many of our healthcare systems have also become the subjects of abject scrutiny. With pressures of rising costs, ageing populations, limited resources and the strain of a global pandemic, the idea of bringing parts of healthcare from the hospital to the home might not sound like a bad idea.

As our everyday lives become more and more digitised, the pandemic’s push on our developments has certainly unearthed more health-related opportunities and business models for us to explore. Let’s highlight some of the ways where we will see these new developments start to shape the future of healthcare in the metaverse.

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Digital twins will revolutionise everything

The consensus amongst experts is that digital twins will be the foundations that build the metaverse. Digital twin technology also has the potential to transform several key areas of healthcare — including the treatment and diagnosis of patients, better-optimised preventative care, better surgery preparation and much more. 

Currently, 25% of healthcare executives have reported using digital twins within their organisations — while an estimated 66% believe their investment in digital twins will increase within the emerging metaverse. And while we are still in the early days, healthcare leaders across the globe have already begun connecting networks of digital twins to create virtual models of supply chains, facilities and even human organs and other body parts. 

Some experts even believe that everyone could one day have access to a digital twin of their genetic profile, which would be created for them after birth. In the case that they would be subject to illness or disease, their “virtual profile” would be computationally treated to provide doctors with advanced solutions on how to best treat their real bodies.

Digital twins will also certainly improve surgical practices in the metaverse. Surgery would be practised on a digital twin before an actual real-life procedure would be carried out, enabling surgeons to reference points in the simulation’s anatomy as needed. This would also allow for experimental techniques or treatments to be trialled on digital twins before being applied to real bodies, thereby reducing the level of risk to patients.

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Several vendors have also made progress with creating customised virtual organs for patients, which can be used for research, observation and better surgical planning. Leading electronics providers Philips and Siemens have both developed digital twins of the human heart to simulate cardiac catheter interventions and other custom treatments. Dassault Systemes has also created a specialised digital heart model in collaboration with US-based hospitals, where these digital twin models have helped surgeons calculate the shape of a cuff between the heart and its arteries. Sim&Cure’s Sim&Size platform also now helps brain surgeons treat aneurysms with the use of simulations, allowing for better pre-operative strategies.

Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health at Accenture, puts things nicely: “Digital twins have potential across both clinical and operational dimensions in the healthcare industry. The ability to model the physical world in a digital format could help with medical education, research and care delivery in the future.” 

Moreover, Kalis believes that: “Digital twins also have the potential to improve operational efficiency of healthcare enterprises through the ability to track and trace healthcare facilities, equipment and supplies in near-real-time, [allowing them to] more efficiently match supply and demand.”

It will transform medical training as we know it

VR has been used by companies to conduct medical training for a number of years now. However, emerging metaverse platforms are now presenting the combined use of VR, AR and AI to offer more effective, real-time guidance for training medical staff. For instance, there is immense potential for surgical training to be completely revolutionised within the metaverse. Alongside the backdrop of immersive experiences replicated from surgical practices, real-time guidance can be provided within surgeons’ fields of view on XR devices.

Metaverse technology may even one day allow students or trainees to “enter” a simulated body, allowing for a full-scale view and replication of actual procedures. AR is also a great way to provide students with better hands-on learning, giving medical students a better opportunity to practise and visualise new techniques before actually performing them in real life.

Veyond Metaverse aims to be a leading future healthcare metaverse ecosystem — citing advanced cloud and real-time communication technology as part of their communication infrastructure. Under their platform, their goal is to: “bring global participants into [their] metaverse world, enabling healthcare professionals to interact in real-time. Thus, simultaneous education, training, planning and collaborative medical procedures are possible.”

It will enhance mental health resources and treatment

While some analysts suggest that the metaverse has the potential to remove users from reality and negatively impact their mental health, a great deal of research suggests that the next phase of the web will also make way for more innovative mental health treatment. As it turns out, there are multiple ways for mental health-related conditions to be improved through VR technology. 

A peer-reviewed study from Oxford University recently concluded that patients who tried VR therapy saw a 38% decrease in anxiety or avoidant symptoms over the course of a six-week period. Another study also found that patients suffering from paranoid beliefs noticed a reduction in their phobias after even just one VR coaching session.

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Doctors are also already recommending VR videogames to treat mental health-related conditions such as brain fog, ADHD, PTSD and depression. In June 2020, Akili Interactive became one of the first “prescription-strength” video games to be approved by the FDA to treat ADHD in children.

And Rey, a growing Texas-based metaverse startup, secured its round of Series A funding within the last year. Rey offers VR sessions to help users work through challenges that will “rewire the circuitry” that causes anxiety. Through VR, Rey’s users can access simulations of various social situations — offering an opportunity for them to better acclimate to concepts that may trigger their anxiety symptoms. Throughout these sessions, human coaches also provide guidance to help users develop stronger coping mechanisms.

So, why exactly is virtual therapy effective? In short, VR’s ability to trick our brain into thinking it is reacting to a real encounter is also able to teach us healthier coping strategies — a phenomenon that we may see become more commonplace in treating mental health conditions in the metaverse. 

Oxford professor Daniel Freeman (who also happens to be a scientific founder at Rey) has remarked on the effectiveness of VR therapy: “The beautiful bit… is that there’s also a conscious bit of your brain saying it’s not real, therefore I can try things differently. It doesn’t break the spell — it just enables you to make the learning.”

It will pave the way for more digitised and decentralised interfaces

The COVID-19 pandemic forced people worldwide to turn to digital services for wider (and safer) healthcare access. As a result, people have become increasingly more comfortable with the ideas of teleconsultations and accessing their medical data through digital services. 

We are likely to see this level of comfort deepen within the metaverse — with some analysts suggesting that we will eventually see the creation of an entire meta-health ecosystem. This may come in the form of avatars for more life-like consultations, or with treatment and diagnosis being provided through data interconnectivity.

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UK-based non-profit organisation DeHealth has stepped into the forefront of the digital healthcare industry, announcing the start of a decentralised metaverse platform that hopes to see millions of doctors and patients interact with each other in full 3D format. Users can even earn virtual assets by selling their anonymised medical data. And to top things off, DeHealth also plans to power its own economy using blockchain technology: the HLT (health) token will be offered as a primary means of settlement within the ecosystem.

Anna Bondarenko, co-founder of De-Health, has outlined the company’s goal as: “Providing people with the most advanced technologies to preserve their health, so that every person in the world, regardless of their place of residence, social status and financial capabilities, can control their health and life.” And thanks to HLT, the hope is that anyone in the metaverse will one day be able to sell and control their impersonal medical information.
DeHealth will be available for download in late 2022, offering access to 3 million Hospital OS users.

Final thoughts

In this article, we’ve been able to observe some of the immense ways in which the metaverse will transform the course of the healthcare sector. There is a long list of opportunities for populations one day to harness better control over their own healthcare data, or for medical students to learn from more advanced training modules. Incredibly, surgeons will also one day be able to reduce the number of trials they perform on patients and increase the efficiency of their procedures through digital twin models.

Overall, health leaders should lean into the metaverse and continue to explore the ways in which it can be used to make healthcare safer, more inclusive and more accessible for all.