Since Facebook changed its name to Meta, the Metaverse has been getting a lot of attention. So, what is it? Some tech insiders see the Metaverse as 3D virtual worlds in which people interact through avatars, reminiscent of holodecks in “Star Trek” or the movie “Ready Player One.” Contrarians may say the Metaverse is only suitable for game environments and that it’s just marketing hype. Only time will tell, but currently at its core the Metaverse is using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies to connect users in virtual environments to one another through digital platforms.
While Facebook is laying claim to the category, it’s really a technology and usage category that many companies will participate in with and without Facebook.
So, what’s in it for healthcare? Just as with the internet in the late 1990’s e-commerce, luxury goods, entertainment, and gaming will lay the foundation that will soon become commonplace for consumers. Healthcare consumers will start expecting healthcare organizations to have a presence in the Metaverse to manage their healthcare needs.
If the current technology adoption curve stays status quo, we’ll see a gradual adoption of healthcare companies dipping their toes into the Metaverse waters before fully embracing it. But it’s safe to assume adoption of the Metaverse will be faster versus prior technologies because healthcare pioneers are already laying the groundwork using VR/AR.
The ripest opportunities for healthcare companies exist if they build off the following five capabilities currently in the market.
1. Integrated Self
When Apple announced1 in 2018 that the FDA cleared two new features for the Apple Watch Series 4, no one could have predicted the behavior shift that would occur. The watch’s built-in electrocardiogram (EKG) and its ability to detect and notify the user of an irregular heart rhythm were seen as overly intrusive features. As users discovered these features, it wasn’t long before patients started sharing the data with their HCPs.
As patients start to embrace the Metaverse, it is highly likely that hospitals and medical groups will create virtual offices where patients can interact with their HCPs. A patient’s medical history, augmented with data from activity trackers, will be broadcast to their HCP during their tele-appointment. Both the HCP and patient will be able to see the EKG results in real-time visualized on their headset.
2. Training and Education
In May of 2021, the Asian Society for Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery (ASCVTS) provided lung cancer surgery training through a Metaverse platform at an online conference. The surgery took place at the Seoul National University Bundang Hospital (SNUBH) smart operating room, and over 200 Asian thoracic surgeons received the training in a virtual environment.2
The biggest draw to the Metaverse is its ability to connect users without boundaries; the amount of people who can gather in a given place simultaneously is limitless. Currently, on online gaming platforms like Fortnite, musicians such as Ariana Grande and Travis Scott are hosting virtual concerts for millions of fans. As the Metaverse begins to open up, it’s only natural that its ability to forge connections will expand. It will start with web-based HCP peer-to-peer programs embracing VR/AR capabilities, and then we’ll see more events held in communities within the Metaverse.
3. Connected Well-being
In June 2020, EndeavorRx, by Akili Interactive, was approved by the FDA to treat ADHD in children;3 after following the recommended regime of 25 minutes of play per day, five days per week for one month, one in three kids treated “no longer had a measurable attention deficit on at least one measure of objective attention,” Akili revealed.
AppliedVR’s EaseVRx product received Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA for treating treatment-resistant fibromyalgia and chronic intractable lower back pain. The EaseVRx program helped patients learn self-management skills grounded in evidence-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) principles and other behavioral methods.4
As VR-centered therapies continue to make inroads as viable treatment options, we could see the Metaverse playing a key role. The Metaverse may serve as an aggregator, connecting patients with support communities pre, during, and post treatment as well as serving as a hub for patients to initiate therapies.
4. Healthcare Communities
Pokémon Go introduced the world to the power of AR in 2016 when the smartphone-based game had players running around cities trying to “capture” virtual Pokémon. But the game’s true power was something the developers didn’t expect. The power to create communities. Users banded together to play the game, work together, and share content on social media. The game’s use of geofencing allowed people to connect online and then meet in real life, allowing the game to transcend both worlds.
Healthcare communities across the web enable patients to share personal stories and information about their health, symptoms, and treatments. These communications have been critical in providing patients and caregivers with new resources, offering new insights to non-patients, challenging traditional power dynamics between patients and clinicians, and using the power of networks to amplify data acquisition to solve treatment issues that currently cannot be addressed within the traditional healthcare ecosystem.
In 2021, The Mount Sinai Health System launched Navigating Dementia, a private community on Facebook designed to help caregivers find guidance and support from others as well as from dementia experts at The Mount Sinai Hospital. The community offered members not only a dedicated place to come together but also curated resources designed to encourage sharing, listening, and learning.
The Metaverse is already hosting communities and connecting groups; it’s only a natural that current healthcare communities will move into the Metaverse as users become more comfortable with the technology.
5. Medical Procedures
Traditional medical device companies are realizing the sheer computing power needed to expand into the Metaverse. Recently, Medtronic, who received European Approval for Hugo, a robotic-assisted surgery (RAS) system for urologic and gynecologic procedures, partnered with NVIDIA to build out the medical omniverse.5 The platform will be powered by NVIDIA’s Clara Holoscan, and it will provide the computational infrastructure needed for scalable, software-defined, end-to-end processing of streaming data from medical devices to aid in complex AI-aided procedures.
While the world isn’t ready to see remote surgeries go fully mainstream, some companies are laying the foundation to increase their computing power so that one day a patient in an operating room in one location may be operated on by a surgeon in another state, while an on-the-ground care team manages the patient’s well-being.
What to Know Before Entering the Metaverse
Much of the Metaverse is still unknown, but as healthcare companies start to think about how they’ll engage in this new world, they need to consider the following points to ensure a smooth transition:
1. Brand Management: 3D worlds lend themselves toward a gaming sensibility, and in any case create a new medium. Just like radio, then TV, then digital and social, brands will have to figure out how to participate, leveraging interactive environments while maintaining brand sensibility.
2. Security: Just as healthcare organizations have addressed security concerns in the past, the Metaverse will be another layer they’ll need to consider when reviewing their security risk and privacy protocols.
3. Payment Systems: Online payment systems from Apple Pay, to PayPal, and even emerging crypto currencies, are prevalent in online communities and environments. Healthcare providers will need to embrace real-time electronic payment solutions and educate their audiences on how to use these new payment systems.
4. Access: 3D environments are high-bandwidth applications. This will intensify the issue of high-speed, high-bandwidth access for rural Americans and any community that is underserved.
While embracing the Metaverse may feel daunting to some in healthcare, we should remember that it was not so long ago we received our America Online free trial CDs in the mail to log on to the internet for the first time. If we had told ourselves back then that we’d be using the internet to monitor our heart rhythms, connect with a doctor 24/7, and research and receive medical guidance from people we met online, would we have believed ourselves? The adoption curve from AOL CDs to Apple Watches didn’t take as long some expected, so why should we expect any less from the Metaverse?