/ 12 April 2022

A healthcare revolution lurks in the metaverse

Surgeons Use Virtual Reality To Practice Surgery
Empowered by VR headsets with facial recognition technology and VR haptic gloves, providers and patients will be able to interact virtually in a hyper-realistic manner, allowing them to feel like they are actually in the same room together. (Photo by Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Real-world fashion brands are turning out to be early pioneers in the metaverse. Gucci carved itself out a hipster territory by buying virtual property on the Ethereum blockchain. Nike’s virtual shoe company is making sneakers for the metaverse. We’d be forgiven for wondering if this new virtual realm is going to primarily be another elite playground. 

With its meshing of emerging technologies such as AI, augmented and virtual realities with ever-increasing connectivity, this new and immersive experience sounds much like a game that may well leave the old and the poor waiting outside in the cold.

This digital world, however, is touted as the next evolution of the internet with even greater power to touch and transform human existence — whether you’re a village health worker in Lesotho, or a climate activist in Brazil. 

The potential for the metaverse to impact on diverse aspects of human endeavour is worth paying attention to. Key technologies will enable us to transcend time and space in a seamless manner, and it’s arguable that this will ultimately become one of the most democratising, inclusive and diversity-rich platforms available.

Telemedicine can equalise access 

New and innovative forms of healthcare are already emerging from this digital evolution with all sorts of therapies, such as computer vision-assisted physiotherapy, making use of augmented and virtual reality technologies. It’s therefore not hard to imagine that in the not too distant future, there will be a pharmacist, a doctor and a therapist on every corner in cyberspace.

Traditionally, healthcare was about bringing people together in the same room – this is the way that medical training, consultations, procedures and treatments have always worked. 

However, providing distributed populations with evenly spread access to healthcare has always been a serious barrier, as medical service providers are not necessarily concentrated in the same areas where public demand is highest, leading to scarcity of services for many people. 

Telemedicine, which seeks to improve access, has been accelerated by the pandemic and has been on the rise over the last two years. An increasing number of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists and their patients have embraced the improved ease of access, greater efficiencies and improved affordability, connecting via audio and video links to enable consultations. 

However, healthcare services in the metaverse will take this to new heights. Empowered by VR headsets with facial recognition technology and VR haptic gloves, providers and patients will be able to interact virtually in a hyper-realistic manner, allowing them to feel like they are actually in the same room together. This technology can surpass any geographical boundaries, so that a doctor in Cape Town can easily consult with a patient in Cairo. As the metaverse experience becomes normalised for ordinary people, its potential to transform telehealth becomes massive. 

There’s no shortage of transformational ideas for healthcare in the metaverse. We might use blockchain technology to own, manage and share our medical records; or each birth a “digital twin”, who can be used to simulate how we might react to a medication, a surgical procedure or a therapeutic intervention, not just for the moment, but also at a future age. 

The promise of these technologies lies in the power of convergence. This will be a radical change from the ways that healthcare remains deeply entrenched in silos that make it hard for medical professionals to work effectively and quickly in multidisciplinary teams. 

Creating an enabling environment

From a business perspective, technology services companies will need an enabling regulatory and funding environment that fosters innovation. From a population perspective, governments are going to need strategies to foster adoption, which will include affordable consumer access to the tech and connectivity that they need to engage in the metaverse. 

Developing countries, where access to quality healthcare is an ongoing problem, are going to have greater challenges to ensure accessible healthcare opportunities in a digitalised world. It is likely that the democratisation of metaverse healthcare won’t happen by default; it will require the intentions and the investments of a government and all their countrywide healthcare stakeholders, as well as a population willing and able to explore and inhabit a new frontier. 

Initially, metaverse medical services will be seen as a second option to physical consultations, but as with video telehealth today, popularity will increase over time as the convenience and cost benefits are unlocked by consumers, service providers and funders.

Safety challenges in metaverse healthcare

The world is already grappling with significant digital safety and privacy issues; and the transformation to digitised healthcare will only highlight the importance of ramping up digital and information security. As it is evident during the latest geopolitical events in Europe, real-life catastrophes are digital catastrophes too, and cybersecurity is more paramount than ever. As the metaverse evolves and expands, so too must our capacities for safety and security in this cyber realm in order to ensure that consumers are protected. 

Adoption depends on it, and there will be no democratisation of healthcare in the metaverse without the protection of data and personal healthcare information, ensuring its users safety and security in this new territory. 

I believe that companies are ready for these security challenges. The standards of securing healthcare data are progressing rapidly, and there’s no reason to think that we won’t be ready to protect healthcare data and access in this new digital future.