In the last decade, healthcare systems have experienced massive digitization, with tech solutions launched in their numbers easing healthcare delivery in many ways. In what has been described as the “uberization” of healthcare, digital solutions are changing the way healthcare is both delivered and accessed, and as tech continues to advance, its dimensions in healthcare continue to evolve.
In June 2022, a UAE healthcare company named Thumbay Group announced plans to launch the world’s first hospital to be located in the Metaverse. Essentially, healthcare delivery will be done through immersive doctor-patient experiences using augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Dr. Thumbary Moideen, founder and president of the group noted that the hospital will be fully virtual with patients coming with their avatars to consult with the doctor.
Dr. Moideen also described how the metaverse hospital would boost the medical travel experience as it allows patients have a tour of the entire hospital from the comfort of their homes using AR and VR models. This will therefore allow international patients to have a feel of the hospital and experience its broad range of services and treatments in real-time before traveling for any procedure.
This tech breakthrough no doubt represents a new and exciting frontier in healthcare, potentially breaking down the barriers of distance, long wait times, and other factors that slow down patient care. The metaverse hospital comes on the heels of social media giant Facebook integrating VR and AR models to allow users to navigate virtual worlds using their eye movements and voice commands.
Healthcare stakeholders had been testing the advanced AI and VR platforms in patient care models even before this announcement surfaced. For instance, Asan Medical Center, which is also developing a Metaverse Hospital model, recently participated in a medical tourism exhibition organized by the Korea International Medical Association and entirely held on a metaverse. Guests attended the conference using their avatars and had discussions in the metaverse meeting room, and even set up exhibition booths in the metaverse space, independent of time and space.
More healthcare providers are now considering the idea of a virtual hospital as a way to meet more patient care demands and improve patient outcomes. Digital and cloud service providers, such as Avanade, are now also working closely with healthcare systems to provide a personalized digital experience for their patients. Many of these technologies, experts say, are moving from experimental stages to being fully operational, and virtual hospitals will in no time become a variant of healthcare delivery.
Undoubtedly, the metaverse stands to be a massive game-changer in the healthcare space with potential benefits that cut across care outcomes and efficient care delivery. Essentially, a virtual healthcare system offers benefits to both healthcare providers and patients.
Improved virtual care
For healthcare providers, VR offers a whole new way to access data and gives a whole new meaning to virtual care. In the last few years, virtual care had often been used to describe teleconsultations and remote patient care models. However, these tools use online interfaces that separate patients from their healthcare providers. The metaverse, via the concept of holoportation, projects a patient and a healthcare provider into the same virtual space, bringing a sense of presence to patient interactions and giving healthcare providers a clearer assessment of patient conditions.
This digital tool, therefore, bolsters the value of telemedicine as it provides a greater dimension for teleconsultation. For example, using Microsoft HoloLens, providers can interact with and examine a 3D projection of a patient with all the necessary data available without needing to be in physical contact with the patient. Further, leveraging this tool’s capacity for mixed reality, healthcare providers can collaborate in real-time, for instance on surgical operations, from anywhere they are.
A software company, ThirdEye, has also developed advanced AR technologies for pre-hospital care, providing first respondents with AR glasses that give them access to live visual and audio communication with remote physicians in real-time. By using this solution, first responders can live stream emergency situations, receiving swift input from clinicians.
Enhanced medical diagnosis and treatment
With easy data sharing and patient monitoring on the metaverse, patients receive care much faster from doctors across various specialties and compliance can easily be tracked. Further, complications can be detected much earlier and interventions provided on time.
This breaks down the barrier of distance, long commute, and shortage of providers, potentially improving healthcare outcomes. With VR, teleconsultations place a patient in Africa with a provider in Europe in the same room with health data, tests, and scans transferred via the interface.
With the concept of digital twinning, where a virtual simulation of a patient is developed based on their genetic profile, medical records, test results, and medical history to create a digital copy of their anatomy and physiology, scientists and healthcare providers can gain insights into their health and carefully predict treatment outcomes and disease risk for patients years ahead.
Metaverse also widens the opportunity for mental health services. Some healthcare systems are testing VR models on children with autism, helping them learn behavioral skills by placing them in an enabling virtual context.
Improved medical training models
The metaverse offers vast access to vital health data as it allows health providers to collaborate and interact, share cases, exchange experiences, and even provide insights during complex surgical procedures performed in 3D on the metaverse from anywhere they are in the world.
Some leading medical schools are also integrating VR and AR into learning models. For instance, students could join virtual settings to watch surgical or even diagnostic procedures demonstrated in 3D. They could even practice these procedures on a digital twin of a human body.
As with new technologies, there are challenges that are inevitable. Addressing these challenges may be crucial to the evolution of the metaverse and may validate its relevance to healthcare settings. Some of these include:
- The issue of data security: As with most digital platforms that allow data sharing or harvesting of large datasets, security compromise may be an important issue. The industry has to develop strong security mechanisms to ensure patient data remains safe and only accessible to authorized personnel within the metaverse.
- Limited use: Some fear that the advanced technologies of the metaverse may only appeal to the young and tech-savvy. Elderly people with chronic diseases, who might be less tech-savvy may, therefore, miss out on some of the opportunities it brings. In addition, due to the massive infrastructure and costs required to build a metaverse in healthcare, not all healthcare providers and hospitals may be able to set this up.
- Regulatory concerns: Data laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPAA) rules may hinder the operation of the metaverse in healthcare in some situations. Given its use of large volumes of patient health information, HIPAA rules may restrict how much interaction or data sharing can take place on the metaverse. Further, since different countries have different data rules, and metaverse cuts across space and time, operating the digital space may face fierce restrictions in some countries, limiting its potential. Similarly, practice regulations for healthcare providers also limit their scope of practice beyond certain geographical regions, which limits their operability on the metaverse.
Metaverse in Healthcare
Technology is advancing swiftly and revolutionizing human interactions. Since the Facebook transformation to incorporate advanced VR technologies, known as the metaverse, into the social media platform, healthcare stakeholders are also considering infusing VR into patient care, effectively combining virtual care into medical care. No doubt, this represents a new frontier in patient care, and one that could see potentially eliminate barriers to access to care, thereby, improving outcomes for patients and their providers.