We can’t deny that healthcare services around the world are under intense pressure. Especially since the pandemic, waiting times can be long, access to certain services can be limited, and, depending on where you are in the world, medical treatment can be hugely expensive. Metaverse technologies like virtual reality (VR) and digital twins can not only improve patient outcomes; they could vastly improve access to healthcare services.
Let’s explore five ways the metaverse may change healthcare for the better.
1. Improving remote appointments
Many of us have had a telephone or video consultation with a doctor or other healthcare practitioner in the last few years. Imagine putting on a VR headset and enjoying a more immersive remote consultation – whether it’s an annual check-up, a review of test results, or diagnosing a minor condition that can be diagnosed visually. VR would enable a deeper level of immersion, giving both you and the practitioner a better sense of “being there” together. Far more so than with a telephone or video consultation.
Clearly, this isn't appropriate for all types of appointments. But for the average family doctor, minor complaints and regular reviews probably make up the majority of their caseload – and these are exactly the sorts of appointments that can be carried out effectively remotely. Especially when you consider that today's wearable devices, like the Apple Watch, are capable of gathering so much data on our body, including heart rate, sleep data and physical activity. In the future, I see a system where this data can be seamlessly shared with physicians to better inform remote consultations.
2. Visiting a metaverse hospital
Taking this idea of VR consultations a step further, we may even have virtual hospitals located in the metaverse – virtual clinics that are accessed via a headset, where patients come for remote appointments. This sort of environment is well suited to mental health treatment and potentially even physiotherapy (using cameras to monitor the patient’s range of motion in the physical world).
For parts of the world where there’s a shortage of medical professionals, or in rural locations where people ordinarily have to travel long distances to access care, virtual clinics could transform healthcare.
3. Having your own personal digital twin
Digital twin technology can be used to create digital simulations of real-world objects, such as machines, components, and even entire cities. But what about digital twins of the human body? It’s an idea that experts are already working towards. Scientists have used digital twins to mimic heart cells to determine whether surgery is necessary or too risky for certain patients. And elsewhere, the EU-funded Neurotwin project is working towards designing a digital twin of an individual’s entire brain. The plan is to use the virtual model to enhance the treatment of neurological disorders, like epilepsy.
We don’t yet have a digital twin of the entire human body. But if the technology did evolve to that extent, healthcare professionals will be able to use digital twins as “test dummies” for patients. With your own personal digital twin, your healthcare provider would have a highly accurate digital representation of your body, right down to the cellular level. And this could be used to predict all sorts of outcomes, such as how you would respond to a certain medication or recover from an illness. In other words, we could each have our own digital twin that would enable healthcare professionals to run tests on a virtual version of ourselves, predict health outcomes, and design highly personalized treatment and rehabilitation plans. Healthcare providers could potentially even “age” your digital twin by, say, ten years or more, to see how interventions taking place now could affect you in the future. How amazing is that?
4. Improving surgery
Thanks to metaverse technologies, we could see surgeons from different parts of the world coming together to rehearse and carry out complex procedures in a virtual space. This is already happening to some extent. In one example, a surgeon in Lisbon, Portugal, was carrying out breast cancer surgery in the operating room while being guided by a doctor 900 kilometers away in Spain. With the help of mixed reality goggles, it was like the surgeon supervising remotely was in the same room. This could allow for better supervision and mentoring of newly qualified surgeons.
Immersive technologies can also help patients relax before or even during surgery. That was the idea behind a pilot study at St George’s Hospital in London. Patients undergoing procedures with regional anesthetic were given the option of using a VR headset before and during their operation. Those patients who used the technology were immersed in calming virtual landscapes, which proved to be incredibly effective. A staggering 100 percent of participants said wearing the headset improved their hospital experience, 94 percent said they felt more relaxed, and 80 percent reported feeling less pain.
5. Accessing immersive therapy
VR is already beginning to establish itself as a useful tool in mental health treatment – and the American Psychological Association has reported that VR is “particularly well suited to exposure therapy.” This has given rise to Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, or VRET, which is (at present) largely being used to treat PTSD and anxiety disorders.
VRET involves using VR to expose patients to scenarios that may trigger their anxiety or PTSD symptoms, all within a controlled, safe environment. The goal is to condition the patient to confront triggers, process the emotions that arise as a result, and engage more deeply with treatment. The obvious advantage for clinicians is that VRET allows them to simulate personalized scenarios that would otherwise be challenging to recreate, while controlling every element of the patient’s exposure. Meanwhile, patients may feel a greater sense of control than they would if they were attempting to confront triggers in the real world. Plus, treatment can be continued at home at their own pace. VRET has been shown to reduce depression and PTSD symptoms in cases of military sexual trauma and has been used to treat a range of phobias, including fear of flying, fear of heights, and fear of spiders.
Bottom line, immersive metaverse technologies could help to improve patient outcomes, increase access to healthcare around the world, and relieve some of the strain on our struggling healthcare services. I’m excited to see how these innovations pan out.