The Metaverse is emerging out of the extended applications of VR, AR, ML, AI and other digital tools. It’s not a new concept, and its origin is attributed to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in 1992.
While there is much current focus on art and NFTs, the Metaverse has other applications, including healthcare and wellness. We will focus on how healthcare will use the Metaverse and why it is essential to improve patient outcomes.
Over the last week, since we launched this newsletter, I have had many conversations about what the Metaverse is and is not. I think it’s helpful to think of the Metaverse today as a series of virtual spaces that also exist while you are not present in them. The technology that glues the Metaverse together is still evolving, but there is enough already present to say the Metaverse exists. Like William Gibson said, “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed”, so is the Metaverse not evenly distributed. We already can carry virtual twins across the internet due to Avatar solutions like READY PLAYER ME and
My Ready Player Me Avatar
many others. NFTs, fueled by blockchain, has shown us how we can think about ownership in virtual environments. VR, AR and web standards are helping with interoperability between virtual spaces created by different companies and the portability of Avatars and objects in these spaces. Yes, we are at the start, but just like mobile phones, the Metaverse and web 3.0 will come together faster than people expect.
Back to our focus on healthcare. The Metaverse has already many great applications focused on health. Here are a few examples for you to see the progress and interest in this area of the Metaverse.
Medical Education and training
Many companies have successfully demonstrated the positive benefits of mixed reality learning and training. For example, VR companies have built training programs for doctors to learn and explore anatomy and physiology. Professor Shafi Ahmed is a multi-award-winning cancer surgeon working at The Royal London Hospital. He is also the Chief Medical Officer at Medical Realities, who have pioneered XR training and education with the first surgical training streamed via Snapchat glasses, VR assisted surgery, and recently Metaverse enabled medical training.
Using extensions of the Metaverse with mixed reality, John Hopkins neurosurgeons performed AR assisted spinal surgery in June 2021. and Uconn Health with Precision OS, a Canadian software company, has been working on VR training for Orthopaedics.
Making medical training accessible will and enhancing the learning capabilities of doctors will provide valuable increases in skills and democratise medical education around the world. The Metaverse will result in better patient care and outcomes in the future.
The healthcare metaverse can improve patient care and outcomes through virtual visits. COVID 19 showed that we need additional ways to see patients. Remote consultation (mainly through telephone and video calls accelerated exponentially during the pandemic. The combination of wearables with patient data streamed into virtual consultations will be a closer step to making remote care possible. People comment that cartoon avatars will not help medical consultations, but in our example, ZONEVS, we use mixed avatars real faces (via video) avatar bodies.
Decentralised clinical trials may be facilitated in the Metaverse, making patient recruiting more extensive and inclusive. Of course, this assumes access to the healthcare metaverse is cheap and easy- remember that VR headsets are not needed to engage in the Metaverse).
Medicine and science generate a gargantuan amount of data, and it isn’t easy to visualise all of this in one place. The Metaverse can act as a virtual mind place to collect and catalogue large amounts of data. Being able to virtually walk around large sets of data and use the advances in AI and ML will allow data science to advance at an even faster rate than today.
Years ago, a surgeon managed to improve care for a patient with a congenital heart defect by scanning and 3D printing the heart complete with the defect. In addition, pre-surgical planning shortened the procedure improving the rehabilitation time. This can now be achieved in virtual visualisations enabling innovations in many aspects of patient care that have not been possible until now and enabled using the 3D visualisation capabilities of the Metaverse.
Metaverse Digital Therapeutics (MVDTx)
This is where DTx (digital therapeutic) solutions are accessed in the Metaverse. Companies like Pear, Bighealth and others have brought in digital therapies that doctors can prescribe with and sometimes without pharmacotherapy. Mental health has seen a significant increase in DTx products addressing conditions like PTSD (Albert Rizzo’s Bravemind), Pain, Anxiety in children for vaccinations, rehabilitation for respiratory and musculoskeletal problems. Other companies have addressed behavioural change based approaches with Noom, Lovingo and Sleepio, among the many. As a behavioural change design agency Phorix also believes (in diabetes) that MVDTx will be more engaging, immersive and compelling. Our research into the effects of loneliness called SPARK is looking at helping people at work, school and recently diagnosed with chronic conditions like Severe Asthma, COPD, and Chronic Heart Failure decrease the effects of loneliness as part of a program to improve mental health and associated outcomes.
The healthcare Metaverse can facilitate changes in capability, opportunity and motivation to make positive change. The COMB model by Michie et al. indicates that all three COMB components should be assessed for successful behaviour change. Giving people virtual opportunities and motivation that are not possible in the real world may support changes in capabilities and overall ability to make sustainable change across health-related topics like increased activity, improved nutrition, smoking cessation and other wellness and witnessed related topics. Phorix is pioneering this approach within the Metaverse.
As part of motivation, the Metaverse will help people maintain actions by deepening engagement and using the behavioural science of gamification. Games in the Metaverse are more profound and more engaging, relevant to fitness and overall well-being. There are many successful examples of this, with Zwift, Pelaton, Wii Fit and Nintendo Switch leading the way but Oculus coming up very quickly behind.
Privacy and interoperability remain top concerns that the Metaverse does not descend into a dystopian world. Getting the healthcare setting right for the Metaverse will help build trust, but there is still a long road to travel to get this right.