Metaverse in Healthcare: Is It The Next Frontier?

metaverse in healthcare

From entertainment to business development, and from healthcare to networking, and more, digitization has changed the lifestyle of people and made it easier. With the announcement of the metaverse, experts geared up to find its usage in varied industries, healthcare being one of them.

As per a report, AR is estimated to gain $2.9 trillion worth of business in the coming years. With AR being one of the essential components of the metaverse, this technology will open up lucrative opportunities in the healthcare sector.

Before highlighting the potential of the metaverse in the healthcare sector, let’s understand what is the Metaverse.

What is Metaverse?

The metaverse is an amalgamation of today’s online world, projected in 3D or expanded into the physical world. Metaverse gives a person immersive experiences and allows them to share with people when you cannot be with them or do things that you cannot do in the physical world.

The word metaverse is a combination of two words – ‘meta which means beyond in Greek’ and ‘verse means universe’. The metaverse is a space where one will be able to do anything such as work, get together with family and friends, learn, shop, play, or create; including the experiences that don’t fit in today’s world.

The metaverse is divided into seven distinct layers as follows:

1. Experience: Mode of exposure through theater, games, e-sports, social media, and shopping.

2. Discovery: Content engagement aspects such as ad networks, curation, social media, ratings, and reviews.

3. Creator Economy: This includes consumers as content creators and consists of asset markets, design tools, commerce, and workflows.

4. Spatial Computing: This erodes the barriers between the real and virtual world and encompasses VR (virtual reality)/AR (augmented reality), 3D engines, and geospatial mapping.

5. Decentralization: The ideal structure of the metaverse is decentralized and includes AI (Artificial Intelligence) agents, blockchain, edge computing, and microservices.

6. Human Interference: Materials such as smart glasses, mobile, wearables, gestures, neural, and voice that join the metaverse.

7. Infrastructure: Includes networking technologies such as WiFi, 5G, 6G, cloud, and GPUs (Graphic Processing Units).

Metaverse saves time spent in traffic, curbs carbon footprint, and allows you to spend time on what matters the most. This technology allows users from different locations to connect through a holographic experience in a virtual space.

How is Metaverse the Next Frontier in Healthcare?

Metaverse in healthcare addresses issues such as mobility or geographical limitations, virtual wellness applications, loneliness in the younger and the elderly population, and mental health uses.

Further, the metaverse is a promising concept in the healthcare sector and drives the interaction between the patient and the doctor. Metaverse is likely to be expanded in four healthcare applications stated below:

1. Metaverse in Mental Health

Companies in the virtual reality domain are working on mental healthcare applications as they open up lucrative benefits. For instance, XRHealth, a provider of therapeutic and extended reality applications, announced the launch of a platform to treat substance abuse cases and mental conditions. XRHealth clinic offers occupational therapy, physical therapy, pain management, speech therapy, ADHD treatment, and more to people.

Likewise, metaverse technology which is a combination of VR, AR, and AI can work in favor of mental healthcare. Through the metaverse, virtual space can be created that triggers memories in the brain by sound, taste, or smell. Thus, neuroscientists can track these triggers to understand how a person stores memories.

Metaverse creates a digital space of our choice, which helps design an environment where a mental health patient is comfortable interacting with a psychologist or psychiatrist. Metaverse can work well with patients suffering from severe mental diseases that affect memories (for example dementia or schizophrenia), thus such patients don’t have to travel and can seek help from home or care facilities.

Furthermore, metaverse can be a tool to treat mental disorders such as cravings, anxiety, or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Also, meditating in a virtual reality environment is an effective way to block distractions, thus elevating mental health.

Despite several advantages of using metaverse for treating mental health, excessive use of a virtual space causes issues such as nausea, irritability, frustration, or time-lapse in connecting with the real world.

2. Metaverse in Surgical Operations

The use of technologies such as AR, VR, robotics, 3D printing, and minimally invasive surgeries in the medical field is on the rise at leading hospitals and clinics. For instance, in March 2021, Riverside Healthcare, based in Kankakee, was the first hospital to provide AR spine surgery.

The technology is designed to determine the position of surgical equipment and superimposes it on the patient’s CT information, which is displayed on a surgeon’s retina via a headset. Thus, allowing a doctor to navigate data and look at the patient.

AR or VR is a fascinating technology that helps doctors in the OR to control systems and connect with data efficiently throughout surgical operations. However, AR or VR technologies come with their own set of unique challenges. The size of a VR system limits itself to certain clinical structures, and mobile virtual reality platforms offer immersion the size of a pocket computer.

Further, the resolution of devices and computer specifications are unique obstacles of VR or AR in the healthcare sector. VR headsets provide a 360-degree camera orientation, however, its graphical interface is limited because this technology is a decade old. A research article states that user-centered design and creating attractive content are other limitations of VR and AR.

These limitations can be overcome with the innovation of metaverse because this technology is developed to provide realistic interactions between people and to design a virtual healthcare space for doctors to treat patients.

3. Metaverse in Medical Training

Medical training and education can benefit from the metaverse as a virtual space provides a platform for students, irrespective of geographical location to interact and share medical knowledge, examine a detailed outlook of human or animal anatomy, and conduct research.

Virtualization provides a higher degree of immersion, social communication, and freedom to share and create. Teaching medical courses virtually and simulation training for surgeries provides hands-on experience for efficient medical training. Since the metaverse is at its primary stage it’ll take a decade to fully implement it in medical schools or colleges.

Further, physicians can leverage virtual reality to reach out to other medical staff during emergencies, medical treatment, prevention, and diagnosis. Metaverse highlights essential questions for medical training such as – ‘Can medical students learn and record a surgeon’s difficult operations?’ or ‘Can surgeons replay failed operations through metaverse?’ These questions open doors to the possibility that the metaverse can become an effective tool in the medical field.

4. Metaverse in Fitness

As per the World Economic Forum, downloads of fitness apps increased by around 50 percent in the first half of 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in significant growth in fitness app downloads and subscriptions. Some of the popular fitness technologies include fitness bands, wellness apps, fitness trackers, machine technology, virtual reality, and more.

With the introduction of the Metaverse, the virtual fitness space is expected to see substantial changes such as group fitness programs from home along with an energetic instructor, a scorecard, and music.

Fitness instructor avatars or voice-only classes will guide people on how to do each exercise, and this can also include a variety of fitness dimensions such as martial arts, Zumba, yoga, or even weights.

Engaging in visual experiences adds motivation and creates a healthy environment, thus bolstering the overall health of the body and mind.

Crucial Limitations of the Metaverse in Healthcare

Metaverse is advantageous to the healthcare sector, however, this technology comes with crucial challenges to the healthcare sector. Security and privacy concerns of e-PHI (Patient Health Information) are the first limitations of the metaverse. With the growth in technology, the privacy of people and cyber-security solutions given by companies a vital aspects because the healthcare sector undergoes frequent data breaches.

For instance, as per, in 2020 a majority of the healthcare data breach occurred due to IT incidences or hacking and the number touched 429 cases. HIPAA is used for telemedicine and video conferencing applications such as Zoom or Twilio, however, its method of implementation in the metaverse can be considered.

Healthcare metaverse developers can consider the usage of data privacy solutions for protecting e-PHI as this results in identity theft, reputation risk, or harm to life.

To incorporate metaverse in the healthcare sector, gadgets such as sensors, gloves, glasses, or other wearables that read the vital signs of patients are required. These items are expensive and the entire society cannot afford expensive hardware technology.

This technology is limited to those who can afford it, and any development in the technology results in the purchase of new equipment just like smartphones. Further, an infrastructure can cost a fortune, and high connectivity such as 5G.

According to a report by the CCM (Center for Connected Medicine), one-third of the medical facilities and clinics say that their efforts to solve interoperability issues are insufficient. Metaverse can link healthcare data for ease of access, thus resolving interoperability issues.

The last limitation faced by the metaverse is the chances of the elderly population adopting new and advanced technologies, as they are the most vulnerable section that needs medical attention.

As per research published by Pew Research, one-third of the elderly above 65 years of age stated that they haven’t operated the internet at all, and 49 percent of the senior citizens reported not having broadband at their houses.

Metaverse has a promising outlook in the healthcare industry due to its varied usage. Despite the limitations, the metaverse is designed to leverage AR, VR, and AI technologies to give a positive patient outcome and help physicians diagnose people better.