Case Studies

Feature: the implications of the metaverse for future healthcare, treatment and medical education

The concept of an online ‘metaverse’, whereby a new, interconnected virtual reality could be created to facilitate many aspects of human and social life, is one which has been excitedly welcomed by many across the tech sector and beyond.

The metaverse has been touted as a kind of ‘3D social network’, where users interact as avatars in a virtual world, exploring virtual environments and engaging in virtual activities together. Along with the social aspect of the metaverse, there has also been talk about the virtual economy, whereby users can create, buy and sell various types of digital goods, browsing virtual stores from their home.

The metaverse is expected to be accessed using a range of wearable devices, which could mean for easy switching between reality and virtual reality. As more and more technology companies and providers show an interest in the concept’s future, there could be a rapid expansion of possibilities which could take it in directions not yet even thought of.

Although not yet in existence, the concept has already begun to attract investments, with some estimates predicting that the value of the metaverse economy could reach $5 billion by 2030.

Unsurprisingly, questions have begun to be posed about the implications of the metaverse for a diverse range of industries and populations, and the field of healthcare arguably has significant potential. In this feature, we take a look at some of these implications, considering how the emergence of the metaverse could impact on work, communications and outcomes in health and care.

Building upon current uses of VR in healthcare

Virtual reality (VR) is already used for many different purposes in the field of healthcare, including in carrying out virtual consults, aiding in the teaching and training of medical students, and in supporting patients to engage with treatments or programmes such as physiotherapy.

The concept of the metaverse has incredible potential for further improving patient-clinician relationships which is only beginning to be explored. In an article entitled ‘‘Metaverse going beyond adoption: the next frontier for global healthcare’, Umer Zaman considers one of the biggest implications of the introduction of the metaverse to be its help in reaching underserved populations across the world, giving them access to specialists, healthcare consultations and treatment options, that they would not normally be able to engage with. There are limitations to this, of course, in terms of the cost of devices required to access the metaverse, and the chances of remote communities being able to afford them; but like with all technology, prices will eventually come down, and developers will most likely find a way to leverage users’ existing devices such as mobile phones.

VR has already begun to be used successfully in treatment and rehabilitation for patients, enabling them to be treated within their own homes, and having a positive impact on patient engagement. Although the initial outlay for VR devices remains relatively high, preliminary studies have shown that overall, there are cost benefits. In a study entitled ‘What do we know about the use of virtual reality in the rehabilitation field?’, the authors consider that VR’s contribution in reducing healthcare costs and improving rehabilitation outcomes means that investment in VR has worthwhile long-term benefits.

The metaverse in preventative healthcare and public health

In an article titled ‘Staying active while staying home: The use of physical activity technologies during life disruptions’, the authors explored the ways in which VR and other digital technologies played a sizeable role in reducing physical inactivity amongst populations under restricted conditions.

“Use of online tutorials/classes and fitness apps was significantly more prevalent during lockdown than before lockdown. Online classes and groups allowed people to both continue accessing knowledge from trainers and stay connected with their exercise communities. This is in line with previous research exploring the use of virtual training platforms and the importance of the social context of exercise.”

The metaverse has also been touted as having the power to encourage public engagement with health. An article entitled ‘Harnessing public health with “metaverse” technology’ considers the benefits of the metaverse for improving public health in the context of India, tackling what the authors refer to as the “three low areas” of low technological competence; low equipment coverage; and low patient satisfaction. The differences in resources between hospitals and regions, and the lack of modern medical equipment in rural India, result in problems with registration and administration as patients travel to major hospitals for better diagnosis and treatment.

“The large number of people from rural areas who go to hospitals in cities limits how much time each specialist can spend with each patient. This means that services in the “Four Limitation Areas” of preventive healthcare, disease management, and rehabilitation are limited. To carry out the Healthy India Plan, it is very important to change the way things are now…According to the current Medical Internet of Things (MIoT) theory, doctors in large hospitals (called “Cloud Experts”) and doctors in smaller hospitals (called “Terminal Doctors”) can work together to make graded diagnosis and treatment more accurate and effective.”

The metaverse will allow patients to be connected with doctors and specialists from around the world, and will also help to facilitate peer-to-peer education and training. Surgeons in remote India, for example, will be able to access education and training they would not normally be able to utilise, developing their own skills and improving outcomes for the patients they treat. This prospect of improved education and training links with the next section of this article, which will look at the ways the metaverse can enhance teaching and learning in health and care.

Virtual treatment and the metaverse

Interesting progress has already been made over the last couple of decades on the concept of virtual treatment, or treatment which is facilitated by digital technologies.

An article entitled ‘Virtual reality in the management of patients with low back and neck pain: a retrospective analysis of 82 people treated solely in the metaverse’ covered a study conducted by Orr, et al., exploring the possibility of completely virtual treatment. 82 participants with non-specific low back pain (NS-LBP) and/or neck pain disorders (NPD) received exercise therapy delivered using VR, with findings suggesting the feasibility of treatment delivered in this way for certain conditions.

“The study demonstrated that virtual reality treatment delivered via the metaverse appears to be safe (no adverse events or side effects). Data for more than 40 outcome measures was collected. Disability from NS-LBP was significantly reduced (Modified Oswestry Low Back Pain Disability Index) by 17.8% and from NPD (Neck Disability Index) by 23.2%.”

Other studies demonstrate different uses; for example, Zhou, et al.’s study, ‘The paradigm and future value of the metaverse for the intervention of cognitive decline, showed how the metaverse could be a preventive tool for phenomena including cognitive decline, collecting and using intelligent data to tailor treatment plans to individual patients. Zhang, et al., in their article ‘Gastroenterology in the Metaverse: The dawn of a new era?’ commented on the likelihood of the metaverse offering remote surgical treatment using wearable devices such as tactile gloves and remote operation robots.

“In the future, we will be able to enter the Metaverse through VR simulators and tactile gloves, complete various difficult endoscopic treatment operations, and accumulate massive endoscopic experience.”

In a world where growing pressures threaten to overwhelm even the most established of healthcare systems, this is perhaps the most exciting prospect for the metaverse. It will be enthralling to watch the development and expansion of current models of treatment as steps are taken toward making the metaverse a reality.

Education and training in health and care

In an article titled ‘Metaverse for education – virtual or real?’, the authors delve deeper into the seemingly endless possibilities of the metaverse for education and training, including the benefits for promoting accessibility and inclusion.

“A true realisation of the metaverse will make the geographical boundaries disappear making the education accessible to the least privileged communities. At the same time, the virtual worlds with immersive experiences of usually less accessible resources would provide at-scale resource sharing throughout the world. The metaverse would enable seamless access of Stanford labs, for instance, to someone in Africa to do collaborative experiments in the virtual worlds.”

The authors cite some important examples of the ways in which education in healthcare and beyond will be transformed by the metaverse, including the introduction of immersive 3600 content, virtual classrooms, AI personalised learning, easier skills transfer, and education without cultural barriers.

In the article ‘The metaverse: A new challenge for the healthcare system: A scoping review’, Luca Petrigna and Giuseppe Musumeci conducted a scoping review of current literature on the metaverse within aspects of healthcare including education and training. One of the key areas it identified was the possibility for the combination of VR and augmented reality (AR) in the metaverse to help enhance standardisation across the medical industry, replicating real-life scenarios and mapping important organ systems or organ functions in realistic 3D.

Specialists in certain fields will be able to share their knowledge directly with students, having the added benefit of walking them through procedures step-by-step, or engaging with them on a level which facilitates learning and information retention.

Medical students and professionals conducting research have begun to think about the introduction of virtual laboratories, or the possibility of replicating world-leading facilities, giving access for these to individuals anywhere in the world. Research will also benefit from the abilities of researchers to collaborate, as well as to reach, treat or report on participants across the globe. Where research is being conducted on rare conditions or in hard-to-reach populations, this will be significant in terms of the development of a global interconnected research community.

Mental health and psychiatry in the metaverse

When it comes to psychiatric treatment, VR has already been used in treatments such as exposure therapy for many years. The branching out of psychiatry into the metaverse is perhaps a natural progression of these kinds of developments. An article titled ‘Taking modern psychiatry into the metaverse: Integrating augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies into psychiatric care’ sees authors Ford, et al. cover ways in which the metaverse could transform different areas of psychiatry. Some of these ways include the ability to directly measure or observe social behaviours; increased cost-effectiveness of functional assessments; the possibility of exposing patients to stimuli or simulations; and in developing the concept of biofeedback.

Research in this domain remains in its infancy, although there are clearly some exciting prospects for developments here in the future.