As reality post-Covid-19 becomes increasingly encumbered with economic, geopolitical & social headwinds, it is fitting that the alternate realities brought by the metaverse cast an optimistic vision for the future. The potential of the metaverse to transform entertainment, work, commerce and the social world has driven a global technological gold rush, however, much remains to be explored on its impact in healthcare.
A Reimagination Of The Healthcare Experience
Despite the many layers of the metaphorical onion of the metaverse, it can be simply considered to be an online environment that is – not incrementally, but rather, exponentially - more experiential, interactive and defined by its immersive nature. It represents the ‘second coming of the internet’: a rebirth that is enriched and engineered with elements of hyperconnectivity, augmented & virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.
Within healthcare, these technological pillars have the capacity to fully reimagine the doctor-patient experience and have, in fact, already demonstrated unprecedented/ remarkable effectiveness as care has evolved over the past decade. Physical therapy, cognitive therapy and rehabilitation have all been taking place in the de facto ‘metaverse’ even before the term had been coined. Now the Metaverse, Web 3.0 and all the monikered technologies of tomorrow have come to support our capacity to deliver care - reminiscent of Max Goodwin in New Amsterdam: ‘How can I help’?
The Metaverse: How It Can Help
The convergence of these new-age technologies will enable healthcare professionals to deliver a suite of highly integrated, intentional and individualized care, unfettered by the siloed nature of existing healthcare models. The rapidity of both doctor-patient & doctor-doctor communication enables unprecedented levels of sophistication in prevention, diagnosis and treatment: the archetypal primary colors of healthcare delivery.
With the pandemic-driven adoption of telemedicine, our appetites for remote care have been whetted and many hunger for what lies beyond this ceiling. The metaverse brings the potential for Telemedicine 2.0 with a next-level doctor-patient experience that is augmented by virtual reality. This additive level of immersion could strongly support the effectiveness of both diagnostic and therapeutic efforts and, in fact, such tools have strong precedent having been used over the years in the treatment of mental illnesses through virtual stimuli.
The metaverse also enables both precision medicine and the larger capacity for individualized research through the possibility of creating ‘digital twins’ in the virtual world: digital representations of human beings. These ‘guinea pigs’ can support our understanding of physiological, psychological & pharmacological profiles on an individual level with high levels of granularity. They create the capacity for accurate scientific exploration through simulated experiments in predictive medicine: understanding how our bodies will react in the future in a broad array of scenarios. This peer through the looking glass could potentially revolutionize preventative medicine, allowing us to concretely see and feel the effects of our health (mis)behaviours, and reorganize our pain-pleasure incentive structures in highly visceral ways.
So what happens to hospitals?
Though physical hospitals will likely never disappear, there is a current race to the future to create an integrated virtual reality hospital environment that is accessible through a headset. In line with Dubai's vision to become the world's metaverse hub, Aster DM Healthcare - a hospital chain in the UAE - has rolled out the first medical facility in the metaverse. Through full-scale rollout of their hospitals on Web 3.0, they seek to enable an immersive and improved remote doctor-patient experience. At GITEX 2022, the largest startup & Unicorn exhibition worldwide, Dr. Shanila Laiju, CEO of Medcare Hospitals affirmed her belief that traditional telemedicine services will be replaced by a more tangible and creative service in the metaverse. Similarly, a diversified international business conglomerate known as the Thumbay group had announced plans to create a full-fledged virtual hospital in the metaverse to provide patients with an immersive healthcare experience. The race is indeed on.
Virtual Reality or Reality Check?
The road to the metaverse is paved with good intentions, however, the metamorphosis of the healthcare industry is likely to face significant headwinds. Ubiquitous economic inequities translate into many of these technologies being inaccessible to the (very) vast majority of the world’s population. Moreover, we still have not figured out the logistic nuts and bolts that will make this new model of care work. We have yet to understand how healthcare consumers will be attracted to the metaverse, how the metaverse will interact with physical healthcare needs and how we will connect patients to the virtual environment. Will VR goggles be the smartphone of the future?
Furthermore, the historically unwieldy healthcare industry, anchored by legacy and tradition, will need to reinvent its business models to align with new models of care. Reimbursements, insurance and remote treatments will have to be redesigned in this virtual universe… in a world where it took over 20 years and a pandemic to drive the adoption of telemedicine at scale.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
Despite these headwinds, we must look upon this innovative and revolutionary technology with excitement given its potential to provide a healthcare experience that is virtually limitless. Anything that can break the barriers of geographic restriction, improve care for patients around the world and move human health one step forward is a possibility worth exploring. That’s the reality.