Ready Patient One: Health in the Metaverse

This article was written by our colleague Amy Williams, Manager, Client Experience

Long the preserve of science fiction, virtual reality has recently begun to take its first tentative steps into the realms of science fact. While we can’t throw off the shackles of our boring analog reality just yet, it is clear that some major players see a big future in this space. The so-called ‘metaverse’ sits at the heart of the new strategy for Meta (née Facebook), and it’s hard to ignore the huge opportunities a truly virtual world could offer. Health is just one of many industries that could be revolutionized if this new technology has the future some believe it does – but first things first…

…What even is the metaverse?

One can be forgiven for asking this question. Not everyone shares the strangely robotic excitement of Mark Zuckerberg on the topic. So what is it, and why is it important? Plainly, the metaverse represents an internet that isn’t limited to the inside of your phone or computer. Utilizing several emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, the metaverse will be built on the ever expanding internet of things, enabling us to increasingly ‘live in the internet’, either within an entirely virtual world or through augmentations built into the ‘real’ world.

What are the implications for health?

The first application, and perhaps most immediately obvious, is telehealth: an area that is already booming, but often maligned. The realities of Covid-19 have meant that virtual appointments and consultations have become commonplace, something that has been welcomed by some and resented by others. It is clear however that the telehealth experience can at least be improved, and at best, revolutionize consultations. The greater sense of ‘being there’ offered by virtual reality is a simple but important aspect that could improve patient experience. More advanced techniques can make it much easier for users in virtual conversations to see the ‘whole person’, and pick up on symptoms from body language and other cues harder to detect in normal video calls. Virtual reality is already used in psychological and neurological therapy, where virtual environments can be used as part of aversion therapy to simulate contexts that cause anxiety in a safe and controlled setting. Likewise, physiotherapy and other disciplines requiring the patient to perform specific actions or techniques, are much easier to observe in these virtual environments than on a traditional video call.

Overcoming barriers to access in healthcare

The growth of telehealth also gives the opportunity to access international healthcare resources, alleviating the access difficulties of geographies such as China, where there is an acute shortage of healthcare professionals. Integration with technologies such as blockchain can also allow seamless and unhackable control over health data and records, enabling patients greater freedom to easily access specialists outside of their usual healthcare sphere. By joining up all of the disparate pieces of information collected across a patient’s healthcare journey; the various tests and specialists they have seen in different health centers, the data collected by their smart devices or wearables, logs of their adherence to name but a few, the metaverse could give healthcare professionals a fuller picture of the various things at play and consequently improve their ability to identify the best course of action.

What does this mean for today’s healthcare industry?

It’s safe to say we’re not there yet (wherever ‘there’ is), and according to some we never will be. However, if the metaverse does materialize, it clearly has huge potential to transform many aspects of healthcare. Major investments of time and money in this new technology could be risky, but could also represent an opportunity to be truly industry-leading.

Tell Us: Do you think the metaverse will have an important role to play in the future of healthcare delivery?