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Realizing the full potential of the metaverse to enable future ready healthcare

29 Jul 2022

The metaverse has become a hot topic fueled by major disruptions and investments in the technology sector. From Facebook rebranding to Meta and Microsoft’s $68 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard to significant enhancements in consumer grade display hardware and connectivity, the promise of a major evolution in immersion, social interaction, and human-machine interfaces is rapidly becoming reality.

Generally, the metaverse is considered as an XR (extended reality) interface to the next global interconnected network. Today, these are manifested as a wide variety of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality applications that work across multiple devices. The vision of the metaverse allows interoperability across the ecosystem that allows users to have identity, assets, and state portable across the entire metaverse.

While most of the current activity has been centered around gaming and e-commerce, it is recognized that for the metaverse to achieve the level of ubiquity that we have seen with the current internet, it must support use cases that appeal to everyone and not be seen as just a video game. This is evidenced by a growing market of enterprise use cases along with social, academic, and healthcare applications that go beyond gaming and into professional, enterprise, and broad consumer demographics. Platforms such as Microsoft’s AltspaceVR and Mesh along with newer players such as Spatial and ENGAGE VR together with Meta’s Horizon suite are providing metaverse platforms that are built for audiences outside of the gaming and youth culture.

It is early days for the metaverse with significant advancements in the technologies, standards, policies, and governance mechanisms still lacking the sophistication needed to achieve the broader vision. The pace of advancement and the disruptive levels of investments being made have built confidence that the vision will become a reality and that the future may not be far away. The metaverse healthcare market is projected to grow from $5 billion in 2021 to greater than $71 billion by 2030, according to an InsightAce Analytic report. The growth is fueled by technology allowing patients and healthcare providers along with drug and medical device manufacturers with clinical research organizations to remotely engage in a truly transformative medium.

Leaders in the healthcare industry are already demonstrating applications that are early indicators of how the metaverse can impact healthcare. An early example, Pfizer launched the Hemocraft application that utilizes a modified version of the popular Minecraft gaming system to provide an immersive environment for younger individuals with hemophilia to learn the importance of, and how to manage their treatment routines. Another example is Roblox who, in a partnership with Akili Interactive, have developed a metaverse application for patients dealing with attention deficit disorder to engage in novel ways through their platform. While currently seen as gaming platforms, both Minecraft and Roblox are evolving as metaverse platforms supporting use cases that go beyond gaming.

For patients, the importance of having telepresence access to physicians has been amplified by the pandemic and the industry has seen increased demand for more engaging, personal yet virtual interactions between patients and healthcare providers. As an example, the utilization of virtual reality in mental health treatment has been demonstrated to have tangible clinical benefits compared to other telemedicine technologies. Startups such as XRHealth have developed digital therapeutic VR applications founded on evidence-based established therapies that support a variety of mental health conditions.

The impact of better telemedicine goes beyond patients just having better video consults with their doctors. Pharmaceutical companies are under pressure to accelerate drug research and clinical trials. The metaverse provides a compelling component in the decentralized clinical trial efforts that many clinical research organizations and drug manufacturers have embraced. These transformations can reduce the time to market and costs for new drugs while also helping to resolve major challenges such as inadequate patient enrollment that medical investors are increasingly seeing.

Life science enterprises are also changing the way they engage with physicians and other caregivers to a digital-first strategy. The metaverse offers opportunities for these enterprises to conduct medical education events such as congresses, simulations, interactive training, and brand launches through immersive experiences that yield more effective learning outcomes than other digital channels. As an example, the concept of a digital twin can be more effectively realized within a metaverse environment. This digital twin can reflect real world medical information and the patient could be diagnosed, treated, and measured through simulations in the metaverse. This type of immersive simulation as a learning device can yield better health outcomes compared to other remote digital learning systems. Switzerland based Medicalholodeck has deployed virtual reality applications that are used for surgical planning and medical education. Münster University Hospital in Germany is using this application to train neurosurgeons.

For the healthcare metaverse healthcare to truly scale will require some major issues be addressed. Issues around data protection and privacy, ‘safe spaces’ for personal healthcare discussions and interactions, standards around the exchange of information within the metaverse and between the real world and the metaverse, and concerns around identity management and trust must all be solved. These very same issues have been grappled with in the non-metaverse digital landscape, however the nature of the metaverse and presence within there add complexity to these issues. The healthcare industry recognizes this and standards organizations such The Metaverse Standards Forum are taking these on in a structured and disciplined way that brings together expertise from across the industry and academia while leveraging the lessons learned with the modern internet.

The impact of metaverse in healthcare is already being realized and as the rapid pace of innovation continues, we expect to see significant increases in the utility of the metaverse for all healthcare stakeholders. Patients will have better access to high quality care and be able to utilize next generation digital therapeutics to improve their health outcomes. Physicians will experience better interactions with their patients and have access to higher quality information from drug and device manufacturers. The manufacturers themselves will reduce the cost and time needed to develop products and metaverse will generate valuable data that yields higher quality and safer products. There are significant milestones to hit to scale the metaverse to its full potential. However, these are well recognized and metaverse leaders are solving these at an unprecedented pace. The next few years will see major changes in healthcare and the metaverse.

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