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July 15, 2022

Healthcare in the Metaverse

Commentary
Philip Connolly
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“In the metaverse, you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine,” Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, said late last year. 

In an address that pushed the Metaverse concept into mainstream consciousness, he spoke about a future where you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute or a concert with friends. 

Or perhaps even see your doctor? While we don’t yet have a universally agreed definition of the metaverse - and the term is nothing new - the step-change in investment is a clear signal that the relationship between people and technology is evolving in a way that is likely to affect healthcare. Effectively a new iteration of the online world, the metaverse promises to bring together artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) to create immerse online environments. 

The attraction of the metaverse is clear - a digital space that provides new ways for people to interact with clinicians and peers. If the metaverse does go some way towards fulfilling the promise of convergence of our physical and digital lives, that could have a significant impact on healthcare. 

According to a report released by Accenture in June, eight in ten healthcare executives expect the metaverse to have a positive impact on the healthcare industry, with the report citing it as "the next horizon" in healthcare. 

So how is the digital health industry tapping into the metaverse? That is far less clear. What it looks like in reality, virtual or otherwise, remains to be seen. 

First movers 

While the role that the metaverse will play in digital health is unclear, that hasn’t stopped companies from looking for a first-mover advantage and giving a peek at what the early opportunities might look like. 

In February, CVS Health filed for a trademark that would allow it to sell goods and services in the metaverse. The company sought to trademark its logo and open an online store, offering downloadable virtual products that could include “prescription drugs, health, wellness, beauty, and personal care products”. CVS also wants to bring the health services it offers in stores to the virtual setting, saying it would provide “non-emergency medical treatments services, wellness programs, advisory services related to nutrition, health lifestyle and nutrition services… and counseling”.

For big industries such as pharma, the opportunities are legion - from educating clinicians, to bringing virtual avatars together in real-time to discuss and make decisions, to telemedicine and mental health consultations. 

There is also plenty of precedent for startups using similar immersive tech - think Lucid Dream using VR and AR for solutions ranging from providing education to patients and caregivers to helping healthcare and life science organizations capture and hold the attention of healthcare practitioners. 

Actual and potential use cases range from improved visualization of molecular systems using 3D technologies to XR-based treatments or treatment enhancements to eventually enabling patient communities in the metaverse.   

Indirect marketing tactics using VR and AR technologies to visualize drug action mechanisms or to show how conditions affect patients have already been used by pharma companies and technology has clear potential to assist in decentralized clinical trials. 

Of particular buzz at the moment is the idea of using "digital twins" as virtual models to learn more about real-world counterparts.

Early days 

There are many different use cases for Metaverse-related technologies - of varying levels of maturity - across healthcare. That all said, don’t expect everyone to ditch the doctor’s surgery just yet. 

While metaverse-related technologies have high relevance to the pharma and healthcare industry, it is still really at the proof of concept stage. The digital health sector is still scratching the surface of what is possible and many use cases remain under or unexplored. 

Despite its clear potential, the metaverse is also likely to hit many of the same issues that digital health has been striving to overcome. There are potential pitfalls along the way - from engaging with busy clinicians and care teams that worry about the extra burden of digital interaction to issues around equity and societal acceptance, especially given lingering questions around data privacy. 

From a commercial perspective, there is plenty to explore about where, and how, this will translate into real revenue or cost savings. 

Plenty of questions remain, but the potential for having a profound impact on the patient's experience is clear. 

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