What does the metaverse hold for healthcare?

04 November, 2021

Many large tech firms believe the metaverse will be the next big thing. But what is it, and what could it mean for the healthcare sector? Sagentia Innovation’s Paulo Pinheiro, Head of Software, considers the potential of this virtual space.

There is a huge amount of excitement surrounding the metaverse at present. However, while the term is far from new, it is still just a concept without a universally agreed definition.

What is the metaverse?

It’s generally believed that the term ‘metaverse’ originated in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. The world depicted in the novel portrays humans as avatars interacting with each other and software agents in a 3D virtual space.

Most people envision the metaverse as a virtual space entered using a headset. It would connect various digital environments that could be used for everything from work to leisure activities like concerts, cinema trips or just hanging out. 

This presents significant opportunities for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to become more mainstream. The metaverse will be to VR and AR what the modern smartphones were to the first mobile phones a few decades ago.

VR and AR technology has seen immense progress in recent years. High-end headsets can cleverly trick the human eye into seeing in 3D as animations move around in a virtual world. Another advancement is the roll out of 5G which will enable a more consistent and connected dynamic digital world on the move.

Nobody wants to be left behind if VR turns out to be the future of the internet. Wealthy investors and large tech firms believe the metaverse could be the next big thing, and they are keen to be part of it.

Metaverse trailblazers

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in July that the company aims to transition from being a social media company to a metaverse company in the next five years or so. In October, Facebook Inc rebranded as Meta.
  • Games company Roblox which debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in March, describes itself as a metaverse company.
  • In September millions of people watched singer Ariana Grande perform virtually in Fortnite according to Epic Games.
  • Nvidia, which designs graphics processing units for the gaming and professional markets, has announced the launch of Omniverse, described as a metaverse for engineers. It will be available as an enterprise service later this year.

For now, everything is in the early stages. The evolution of the metaverse - if it happens at all - will play out between tech giants for the next decade, or maybe even longer. Nevertheless, there are early signs that healthcare could benefit from joining the metaverse; VR along with its cousin AR (augmented reality) are already having an impact on the sector. 

How VR and AR are infiltrating healthcare

New and disruptive technologies based on AR and VR are emerging to improve medical education and training as well as processes and procedures.

Medical learning and training

VR is used in the training of doctors and medical staff to take learners within the human body, providing a 360° view of ailments or replicating real-world procedures. 

Medical schools are also beginning to incorporate AR into the curriculum to provide students with valuable opportunities for hands-on learning. AR programs are used to simulate patient and surgical encounters, allowing medical students to visualise and practice new techniques. Further still, immersive experiences could be recreated from real surgeries where students will sense and feel the replayed real surgery as if they were the surgeon themselves.

It is not inconceivable that the metaverse could also become the first training ground for the next generation of surgical robots where via Artificial Intelligence, surgical robots would learn how to operate surgeries on humans.

Surgical procedures and pre/post-surgery assessments

Building on the existing use of surgical robots, more complicated surgeries are set to make increasing use of AR.

Potential applications range from the removal of cancerous tumors to performing complicated spinal surgery. These developments will further enhance surgical precision and flexibility for complex procedures. Already AR is providing surgical staff with new ways of accessing information that is more compatible with surgical workflows and the sterile field of the operating room, for example real-time guidance is provided in the surgeon’s field of view of the surgical site through integration with surgical navigation systems and fusion of data from multiple imaging sources.

Pre-surgery and post-surgery assessments can also benefit from the use of AR to optimise surgical outcomes with more personalised intervention rooted in data analytics.

Wellness, fitness and quality of life

Gamification – the use of game mechanics in non-game environments – offers new ways to connect healthcare providers and patients. Its use in healthcare scenarios is largely restricted to wellness and fitness apps at present, for instance AR is used to deliver smarter workouts with guidance from virtual instructors. 

It’s also been shown that VR can help improve quality of life for people with dementia. One study equipped patients with a VR headset to ‘visit’ one of five virtual environments, including a cathedral and a sandy beach. After 16 monitored sessions, researchers found the patients were better able to retrieve old memories, which improved mood and provided positive mental stimulation.

Is the future of healthcare in the metaverse?

Solutions involving VR and AR are already improving patient experiences and outcomes. Even simple procedures such as intravenous injections and blood draws can benefit from technologies like that from Accuvein which projects a map of a patient’s veins onto the skin.

More recently, Medtronic acquired the company Digital Surgery and Zimmer Biomet announced OptiVu™ Mixed Reality which leverages the Microsoft HoloLens to merge real and virtual worlds. The investments being made by these large medtech companies, combined with a growing number of startups developing AR and VR solutions, illustrates the way the surgical environment may change in the coming years.

Another example is Veyond Metaverse which brings global healthcare professionals together for simultaneous education, training and planning as well as collaborative medical procedures. According to the company website, it uses advanced cloud and real-time communication technology to “empower clinicians to practice their skills with the utmost precision to ensure everyone receives the best healthcare delivery anytime and anywhere.”

Whether this will result in healthcare joining the metaverse remains to be seen. However, anyone who has used a digital avatar at a work meeting or virtual event has already had a taste of what the future might hold. And we’re already seeing the creation of metaverse platforms geared towards the healthcare space.

While the metaverse is still in its infancy, it holds tremendous potential for the transformation and improvement of healthcare. It will be fascinating to watch the situation unfold.

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