The metaverse – new reality beckons, but how far out?

Expectations are high for the use of virtual worlds and experiences in healthcare, but much work and fine-tuning lie ahead.

This article is part of the May 2023 COVERstory.

The metaverse is believed by many healthcare professionals to be a key innovation that will revamp the way care is delivered. 

That said, current use cases are early, and many expect rapid expansion of the technology to be several years out. Still, there’s a strong belief that it can play in many aspects of care delivery. 

While there’s still confusion surrounding the definition of the technology, the metaverse generally encompasses a digital environment that will enable users to access interconnected virtual worlds through virtual reality hardware. The expectation is that users will navigate the metaverse and be able to interact with each other and their surroundings. 

While popularized early uses for the metaverse have focused on gaming and education, visionaries in healthcare see applications in medical and surgical imaging and training, and mental health. Some define the metaverse more broadly beyond visual extension to include Web3 technologies and applications, such as blockchain and virtual assets, as well as virtual worlds where users can gather or create information. 

Lofty expectations 

According to Accenture’s Digital Health Technology Vision 2022, 81 percent of healthcare executives surveyed say they believe the metaverse will have a positive impact on their organizations, and nearly half predict the impact will be transformational or breakthrough. 

Similar optimism was found in another survey, conducted by Boston Consulting Group in late 2022, which found that about 90 percent of healthcare executives said they believe the importance of the metaverse, and their companies’ involvement, will increase. 

But the extent of actual use underscores the early stage of development of actual use cases, Boston Consulting found. “Only 17 percent of providers and 6 percents of payers have started or are scaling pilot programs,” it reported. “Most payers and providers have yet to define their vision and take a strategic posture regarding the use of metaverse technologies.” 

The consultancy suggests there are three phases of adoption of the metaverse, and that the healthcare industry is only in an initial phase of initial experimentation; it’s only the second phase (a five-year span) that will see broader adoption of current use cases and the emergence of new uses as technologies advance. Beyond 2030, the third phase will feature “the development of more advanced use cases and the establishment of metaverse technologies across many areas of healthcare.” 

Early use cases 

Generally, the earliest uses of the metaverse in healthcare have been patient facing, helping those suffering from pain or difficult medical interventions escape to a virtual world. Early results of these efforts have demonstrated success in alleviating suffering. 

A report by Stanford Medicine notes that the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital and Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital uses VR therapy to make procedures more pleasant and less painful. In these uses, VR reduces pain and anxiety by distracting patients, research suggests. 

Additionally, Stanford is advancing other uses of the metaverse. For example, at Betty Irene Moore Children’s Heart Center, three VR projects are influencing medical education for congenital heart defects, preparing patients for procedures and aiding surgeons in the operating room. And a new VR simulation helps patients and providers learn more about therapies offered in its Fetal and Pregnancy Health Program

Prepping clinicians for complex procedures is also in place at George Washington University, which uses Precision Virtual Reality by Surgical Theater to virtually explore patients’ brains and bodies before brain and thoracic procedures. 

In its report, Boston Consulting notes that Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic are using augmented reality to help with surgical preparation and execution in spine surgeries and catheter placement. The technology enables full visualization of the anatomy, improving error rates, speed and outcomes. 

Many expect the metaverse to provide increasingly immersive experiences. For example, technology previewed at HIMSS23 demonstrated how the metaverse can provide a more complete education for medical residents. A program being developed by Albert Einstein Hospital Israelita, part of a six-hospital system in Brazil, supports education about robotic surgeries. 

The metaverse enables residents to actively participate in virtual training, says Nam Jin Kim, MD. “We’ve used case observation here, which is the way we used to do medical training in the 19th century. Only the fellow or first assistant gets to touch the patient,” he says. “In a crowded setting, what are observers really learning. There’s almost no interaction, and no metrics to determine if the student is actually learning.” 

The system’s use of the metaverse, expected to debut in November, will enable residents to switch between key moments in procedures, view volumetric videos, and create and share virtual events with a team, and can ask an experienced surgeon to be present in an interactive session. 

Such virtual training is already possible – companies like  Osso VR  and  ImmersiveTouch  offer virtual reality solutions to train surgeons or to hone skills.  

Potential uses, but challenges ahead 

The metaverse is expected to play growing roles in various instances in healthcare, in addition to immersive training capabilities. 

For example, augmented reality might assist clinicians with digital diagnostics, as well as care planning and delivery. The Accenture report also notes untapped potential for patient and caregiver wellness, enabling them to better understand conditions in immersive environments, which may help improve compliance with care plans. And the metaverse may also extend the effectiveness of virtual therapeutics, helping patients with pain management, neurological disorders and behavioral health. 

Still, clinicians can be resistant to new technologies that appear over-hyped, and there will be a learning curve with metaverse applications, some caution. 

“There’s enthusiasm for digital health and tools, but uptake is hindered and, in every instance, we see that adoption remains the same,” cautions Meg Barron, vice president for digital health strategy at the American Hospital Association.  

“In our research about emerging technology, we often show current usage is low, but the anticipation for use is quite high,” she says. Clinicians need to see concrete use cases and provable outcomes being delivered. Other questions in clinicians’ minds include reimbursement and liability. 

“How do we go about the change management aspect of this, implementing one more tool into practice,” she concludes. “Change management is key, making people feel like they trust what they’re using.”

Return to the May 2023 COVERstory.


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