What the metaverse and virtual reality can contribute to healthcare

An expert offers an overview of AR and VR for provider organizations, and discusses what these leading-edge technologies might help hospitals health systems accomplish.

The so-called metaverse and virtual reality are up-and-coming technologies that could offer healthcare quite a bit.

Medical practitioners can test out the effectiveness of new surgical methods in the metaverse before attempting on real patients. And as an extension of telehealth, medical professionals can use virtual reality to access patients and examine them virtually.

What exactly is the metaverse? How does virtual reality work? What can they contribute to healthcare? And where will these technologies offer innovations in the years to come?

To get answers to these questions, we sat down with Pari Natarajan, CEO of Zinnov, a global management and consulting firm focusing on digital transformation in healthcare.

  1. Please explain what the metaverse is. Why is the metaverse relevant to healthcare provider organizations?
  2. Think of the metaverse as the next iteration of the internet, enabling a seamless convergence of physical and virtual communities for people to work, play, transact or socialize. It acts as a catalyst for technologies such as blockchain, IoT and digital twins to unlock their highest potential.

The metaverse holds the power to transform healthcare in manifold ways. It allows seamless collaboration for personnel across the industry and geography to knowledge-share and collaborate. It will become very easy for healthcare specialists across the globe to assist in key surgeries, using robots and augmented reality technology.

In fact, neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins performed the institution’s first augmented reality surgeries in living patients.

With its ability to blur the lines between the digital and physical worlds, the metaverse will help curate more immersive, engaged and lifelike experiences across the healthcare value chain for all stakeholders involved.

  1. Please explain how virtual reality works and use cases in healthcare.
  2. Virtual reality improves the quality, accuracy and outcome of treatments in healthcare.

It helps in improving the overall surgical performance by 230% compared with traditional methods, according to the clinical validation study at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. It reduces the occurrence of diagnostic errors through repeated simulations and visualizations.

With its ability to simulate real-life scenarios, virtual reality can be an instrumental tool for physical rehabilitation programs and help patients by mimicking physical movements. Not only physically, but it can also improve their cognitive rehabilitation efforts.

Other use cases of virtual reality in the healthcare industry include patient and pain management, disease prevention, surgical planning, immersive training, telehealth, remote surgeries, and medical simulations.

  1. How can the metaverse and virtual reality help with surgery?
  2. The metaverse and virtual reality enable surgeons to visualize and simulate surgical procedures. In fact, George Washington University adopted an advanced virtual reality tool for neurosurgery, where surgeons could virtually examine a patient’s brain and body ahead of the operation.

This can be extremely beneficial to conduct training with realistic simulations. It also solves the lack of availability of in-person training labs, reduces the costs for conference travels, surgical equipment, and creates an immersive hands-on learning experience.

It also reduces the time to perform surgeries by allowing surgeons to plan out surgical approaches ahead of the procedure. The associated risks are also reduced through a force-feedback mechanism.

Surgeries using such technologies are also performed by robotic devices controlled by surgeons (who are present at a remote location), which improve procedural accuracy and reduce the associated risks and complications.

  1. What roles can virtual reality play in the realm of telehealth?
  2. The pandemic made it evident that telehealth is here to stay, and virtual reality will only serve to evolve the space.

Patient recovery is an area where virtual reality will play a key role. With real-time data inputs, having taken consent from patients, healthcare providers will be able to recommend immediate and personalized solutions as a result of improved patient monitoring. This will also be useful for elderly care where constant support is needed.

Telehealth has made quality healthcare accessible. Virtual reality will improve the quality of remote consultations as the previously virtual sessions/video-calls come close to reality. Healthcare professionals will be able to see patients as 3-D avatars, examine, and treat them more accurately.

This will also create an improved experience for both patients and healthcare professionals, and enhance the human element through the process.

  1. Looking ahead, what innovations do you think the metaverse or virtual reality can foster in healthcare in the years ahead?
  2. Virtual reality enables widespread improved experiential service-delivery at scale in healthcare. It will create a more immersive reality for patients, vendors/partners and healthcare employees, and engage them holistically involving all their senses. Further supporting hardware like virtual reality headsets will become more accessible from a cost and availability standpoint.

The increasing adoption of digital twins in the med-tech space will enable enhanced deep learning and insights about patients by analyzing large volumes of data and visually representing them to derive more accurate and targeted solutions.

The metaverse also makes it possible for healthcare industry stakeholders to use digital twins as a testing ground for future technologies, forecast patient recovery cycles and treatment response.