Dr. Daniel Freeman at Oxford VR came up with GameChange, a worthy-of-its-name cognitive therapy platform. It uses a mix of technologies — with VR at its core — to treat agoraphobic avoidance in patients with psychosis. The platform puts a patient in lifelike simulations, be it visiting a cafe, a shop, or a doctor’s office, while a therapist walks the patient through the program to let them rethink their defence behaviors. Test results prove: compared to patients who receive usual care alone, those enrolled in immersive therapy have significantly improved their condition. Having assistance like this is invaluable in scaling and increasing the quality of mental care and healthcare in general. So, if you have your mind on taking a leap into the healthcare metaverse or consider turning to a metaverse development company, keep on reading! Below, we describe what immersive technologies — and a mix of them, which the metaverse essentially is — can do for the industry and highlight the challenges that could halt wider adoption of the metaverse in healthcare.

Medical metaverse: let’s clear up the definition first

The concept of the metaverse has been around for decades. Though it’s Facebook’s turning into Meta that took the topic to the headlines. And now healthcare leaders are taking notice as well. So, let’s see what the metaverse means in the context of digital health. Today’s healthcare tech is mostly dominated by medical software solutions that give users an opportunity to interact with digital content, for instance, manage ERP records or exchange medical images. What pairing up the metaverse and healthcare is about to do is to change the very nature of people/content relationships, making users experience content rather than simply interact with it. The end goal of the healthcare metaverse vendors is to eventually merge the digital and the physical worlds into a collective virtual open space for all kinds of activities to take place — from surgery planning to next-gen telemedicine consultations to virtual therapy sessions. If you wonder how that will be realized, it’s not that complicated. To step in the metaverse, a user will only need a virtual reality (VR) headset, augmented reality (AR) glasses, an inexpensive add-on that turns a smartphone into an extended reality (XR) gadget, or any other XR device.

The applications of the metaverse in healthcare

The metaverse and healthcare is not a common pairing just yet, but the industry experts agree on its promising value-generating potential. At ITRex, we don’t believe in the digital-only future of healthcare. Still, we do see some aspects of it flourishing in virtual settings. Here’s a rundown of the essential ones.

Improving healthcare training and education

Leading medical schools have already amplified healthcare training by tapping into AI, VR, and AR development. Bringing the metaverse in healthcare training could help medical schools take a step further and switch to stimulation training. Students, for example, could join virtual settings to watch complex surgeries demonstrated in 3D or even practise conducting one themselves on a digital twin of a human body. Healthcare professionals, too, may use the metaverse to exchange experience (for instance, demonstrate a new diagnosis or treatment method) in digital conference rooms, no matter where they are in the world. On the healthcare education frontier, several startups embracing immersive technologies are quite noticeable. One of them is Giblib, a digital medical library featuring immersive training content. Surgical training platforms, like Osso VR and Health Scholars, are getting in the spotlight, too. These platforms help clinicians practise and automate responses to emergency situations through VR-enabled interactive experiences. Another aspect of how the metaverse improves healthcare training is by allowing healthcare employees, as well as family caregivers, to better understand the experiences of their patients or loved ones. Embodied Labs, for example, exploits immersive technologies to help users understand, among other things, what hearing and vision loss may feel like, discover how social isolation associated with certain conditions might impact a patient, or learn to spot and differentiate the symptoms of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Enhanced medical diagnosis and therapy

Beyond education, metaverse technologies can assist healthcare professionals as they plan and complete diagnosis and treatment. Back in 2020, for example, neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital performed the institution’s first operation using an augmented reality headset by Augmedics, a surgical assistance pioneer. The surgeon used a see-through eye display that projected the images of a patient’s anatomy to fuse six vertebrae in a patient’s spine in order to cure persistent back pain. So, the solution basically gave the surgeon the needed X-ray vision. Medical metaverse environments can be used for surgical planning as well. InVisionOS, for example, allows surgeons to better do preoperative planning by converting patients’ CT scans into 3D reconstructions accessible through headsets. So, surgeons may view, manipulate, and isolate relevant anatomical areas before performing the surgery. Medical metaverse tools could also be used as an amplification to prescribed treatments. This way, assistive therapy solutions, like EaseVR, are getting attention. EaseVR is a prescription-based solution that uses CBT and other behavioral therapy methods to assist patients with chronic back pain. The solution consists of a VR headset and a controller and relies, among other techniques, on deep relaxation, attention-shifting, and interoceptive awareness to address the physiological symptoms of pain. Test results report that at the end of the assisted treatment, 66% of EaseVRx participants reported experiencing less pain, compared to 41% of control participants who received usual care alone. When it comes to bettering the population’s mental health, metaverse environments can help extend access to therapy. Along with GameChange we referred to earlier in the article, there are several prominent startups rising on the metaverse and mental health scene. Floreo, for example, helps children with autism spectrum disorder practice behavioral skills by placing them in different social contexts. And Luminopia helps treat neuro-visual impairments, like amblyopia, in children by generating specially modified digital scenes.

Effective patient engagement

Due to its immersive, gamified nature, the healthcare metaverse can become a useful means of boosting patient engagement. High-quality immersive content and gamification features could help clinicians explain complex concepts, walk patients through procedures they’re about to undergo, or make sure patients take the prescribed medications. Digital twins take a step further in keeping the population informed and engaged. Digital twin solutions, like the one from Q Bio, for example, combine a patient's vitals, CT scans, medical history records, and genetic test results to create a digital simulation of a patient’s anatomy and physiology, as well as tap into insights about their health. So, patients could see all of their health data visualized beautifully on a virtual dashboard and share it with clinicians, nutritionists, and researchers for individual care plans.

Next-gen telemedicine

Since the beginning of the pandemic, provisioning of healthcare as a remote service has peaked. The tendency is expected to carry on in the metaverse. But with the engaging, immersive experiences the healthcare metaverse could offer, it would open a new range of opportunities for both patients and healthcare providers. Compared to videoconferencing that is in use today, the healthcare metaverse could convey a far greater feeling of being present, which could help patients feel more at ease with the medical staff. Clinicians, in turn, could get a more thorough picture of a patient's health condition. Although the telemedicine market is still predominantly video-based, a number of metaverse startups have already entered the scene. One of them is ThirdEye. The company offers AR glasses for first responders to access live video and audio communication with remote physicians — all in real time. By using the AR solution, first responders can interface directly with a see-what-I-see platform and live stream emergency situations to offsite clinicians.

High-touch brand interactions

The metaverse could add a human touch and personalization to healthcare and pharma brand campaigns. Stepping in the metaverse, healthcare and pharma brands can host events for those who can’t attend in person or reach out to new audiences through immersive advertising. Despite the sector’s long-held reputation of digital timidity, healthcare and pharma are ready to move forward, experts estimate. GCI Health EVP and US Head of Digital and Innovation Kristin Mengel Ryan states: “Healthcare organizations are ready to commit, even if they lack clarity around budgeting for metaverse initiatives. Pharma has done a good job recruiting digital talent, and in the last two years they’ve radically accelerated adoption of digital.” While the market is considering opportunities, some pioneers have already ventured into the metaverse. For example, Area 23, a top healthcare advertising agency, has recently presented a metaverse primer for internal and external audiences that drew a record number of visitors. Other big industry players are keeping up as well. Back in 2021, Pfizer hosted an event, where Grand Theft Auto players could get vaccinated in roleplay as part of the company’s campaign. CVS, too, is attempting to trademark pharmacy, health clinics, and retail goods in the metaverse, and is offering virtual wellness and nutrition coaching.
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Metaverse in healthcare: the challenges that lie ahead

Like all new technologies, the metaverse comes with its hurdles. Gaining wider use, the metaverse could cause healthcare inequities associated with device ownership, digital literacy, and internet accessibility. Moreover, virtual entities like digital twins raise questions regarding healthcare data ownership and privacy. At ITRex, we see the following challenges halting a wider adoption of the metaverse in healthcare:
  • Data privacy and security: The industry has to think over the aspects of data ownership and privacy and develop new mechanisms and regulations for protecting sensitive patient information
  • High upfront costs: To realize the full potential of the metaverse, healthcare organizations would need to invest in high-tech hardware, like headsets, gloves, and other needed wearables. So, initially, the technology is likely to be limited to those who can afford it. Also, the cost of the metaverse solutions infrastructure is expected to be quite high as it requires high-end connectivity, especially when it comes to such use cases as surgical assistance
  • Interoperability: The essential component of the current healthcare paradigm, interoperability is yet to be addressed when it comes to the healthcare metaverse. Unless the entire industry adjusts the current data and communication standards, the adoption of the metaverse is likely to be slowed down
  • A lack of trust: It’s only natural that patients may feel skeptical about receiving treatment online, so they would have to be educated on the specifics, opportunities, and limitations of the healthcare metaverse settings

Metaverse and healthcare: another gimmick or a viable alternative to traditional patient care technologies?

Healthcare metaverse technologies are still nascent and unlikely to take over the market for another few years. Yet industry experts believe healthcare organizations may start to “dip their toes in the water”. According to Emma Chiu, Global Director at Wunderman Thomson Intelligence, healthcare organizations considering metaverse tech must remember just how important technology is to most people. The company’s recent report “Into the Metaverse” revealed that 93% of respondents believe technology is the future, 81% stated that a brand’s digital presence is as important as physical one, and 76% noted that their everyday lives depend on technology. Technology also makes people feel better, the report found, with 88% of Gen Z survey participants and 85% of millennials saying they use tech to unwind. Ms. Chiu also points out that there’s a clear link between technology and wellness with 55% of respondents indicating that technology makes them physically healthier and 56% stating that tech improves their mental health. Metaverse healthcare applications are also expected to improve in the coming years, bringing about a positive change — be it scaling access to therapeutic environments, breaking down barriers for seniors and people with disabilities, or making it easier for people to participate in research. Still, although people are indeed interested in digital services, cumbersome digital experience would rather turn them off, according to Gartner. Concerns over the metaverse’s privacy, security, and trust remain, too, amplified with the difficulties of integrating new tools into day-to-day clinical workflows. So, if you don’t want to miss out on the new opportunities the metaverse and healthcare duo could drive but you’re still unsure about the impact of the novel technology, it’s only natural to take small steps. Bring in a touch of the metaverse experience into the areas that are not directly connected to the clinical workflows. Alec Pollak, SVP for group omnichannel strategy at Area 23 advises: “The opportunity to advertise in a game, for example, represents a nice first step and one that doesn’t require a big commitment.”
If you have unanswered questions regarding the metaverse and healthcare combo or are ready to take a first step into the metaverse, contact our experts — we’ll help!