Since Facebook changed its name to Meta, there has been a lot of buzz around metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg envisions a fascinating, interactive 3D virtual world where people can work, meet friends, spend their free time. “In 5-10 years, it should become mainstream,” claims Zuckerberg. If so, will we soon be able to teleport to the hospital of our choice, not being locked into our local healthcare ecosystem?
Second life reloaded
Metaverse is a form of a parallel universe accessible to users through virtual and augmented reality technologies. The term originates from the 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash” and signifies immersion in an unreal, digitally generated world.
Metaverse is much more than classical virtual reality (VR). When we put VR goggles on, we are observers of virtual reality, but we hardly interact with it. In metaverse, users have a “virtual presence,” allowing them to meet other people, shop, spend free time, work and experience the artificial world through their senses. For instance, Facebook develops haptic gloves to transmit pressure on fingers and palms when touching virtual objects. When entering the metaverse, we will use our digital identity to use selected services, including medical ones.
This is not a new idea. In 2003, San Francisco-based company launched Second Life. It’s an online game where people can create avatars for themselves and have a “second life.” However, it is only a game. Metaverse is a part of reality. People, places, spaces, brands and money can be real. So you will be able to interact with other real people, buy clothes and wear them in the virtual world, use services, and pay for them.
After months spent talking on ZOOM and Teams, one might wonder if such a vision is really tempting. Many people are annoyed by strange backgrounds, technical problems, and staring at a computer screen for hours. In the virtual reality of the metaverse, we have to prepare ourselves for the multitude of stimuli. I’m curious to see how the human brain handles them (see the video below). But weren’t we all skeptical when the first smartphones were introduced?
Self-designed health space
Medicine may be among the metaverse’s most exciting ecosystems. Nowadays, even digital services with perfectly developed interfaces are still limited by real-world rules. For example, during an online appointment, a patient can see the doctor only in two dimensions. The doctor asks about the problem, the patient describes it, and sometimes sends the results of tests taken at home, such as blood pressure, body temperature, etc. The doctor has to rely on the data provided by the patient. This is actually a copy of a traditional appointment, only in the digital, sometimes boring form.
In metaverse, the visit will be entirely virtual. An avatar will meet the doctor just like it happens during a classical, face-to-face appointment. But this is not about the illusion of personal contact. A digital human in metaverse won’t be only a computer-simulated 3D image of someone’s looks and behavior, but a precise, data-based projection of this person.
Let’s go one step further. Each patient will have a digital twin—a 1:1 copy made of data describing their health generated in diverse sources: electronic medical records, wearable devices measuring physical parameters in real-time. Strictly medical data will converge with information collected elsewhere within the metaverse ecosystem, such as administrative data, consumer behavior, lifestyle, etc.
The metaverse will facilitate several advancements. First, a doctor, visible in 3D, will examine us, having access to all data. “To examine a patient” will shift to “examine the data.” For less complex disorders, the doctor will be an algorithm knowing millions of patients better than any actual doctor working in a small local community.
In such a data ecosystem, healthcare will be personalized and easily accessible. Doctors will not ask any more subjective questions like “how do you feel?” or “what’s the problem?”. Instead, they will ask for consent to access different layers of data in order to gain insight into patients’ health. They will see a generated 3D image of the internal organs check the throat, lung, heart with patient-operated home lab devices.
What’s more, imagine meeting your doctor in a place that you prefer. Let it be your dream home, super-modern doctor’s office, or somewhere in the mountains. You will even be able to choose the personality or gender of your doctor, so you feel as comfortable as possible.
Prevention in matrix
The more data, the more precise the diagnosis and treatment. Yet future health will focus on prevention. Each person will have a personal genetic profile recorded in the electronic medical record birth. Who knows, maybe soon it will be possible to use genetic engineering to delete or overwrite genetic mutations that increase the risk of developing a disease. It’s not only a dream since the breakthrough mRNA technology allowed the immune systems of billions of people around the world to be programmed to increase anti-coronavirus immunity.
Moving to metaverse will mean that people will be less mobile, which translates to a potentially lower rate of accidents and injuries. We won’t catch flu or coronavirus from digital avatars. In the metaverse, people with physical disabilities will have the opportunity to enjoy their lives like everybody. Some mention a more diverse world.
Living in virtual reality involves problems, too. Less mobility means a higher risk of obesity, metabolic disorders (including diabetes) and heart diseases.
It is hard to forecast the scale of mental disease resulting from the replacement of interpersonal contact with virtual relations—you will be able to meet your friends in metaverse without ever moving from your armchair.
This world will not be for free. Clothes, entry to a concert, meeting with friends at the bar will have to be paid for. Over time, the metaverse can become a competitor rather than a supplement to reality. One can easily imagine such a form of access to healthcare only for privileged social groups and the marginalization of people of lower social and economic status.
In metaverse will also be hackers to steal identities or hack some spaces. Being attacked by a cybercriminal in the metaverse will be far more harmful than having your computer attacked while you are outside of it.
Interoperability eats metaverse for breakfast
Apart from Facebook, other companies are working on metaverse, too: Microsoft, Amazon and the Chinese new technologies’ giant Tencent. But before we experience the above-discussed applications, there are some barriers to overcome.
One of them is interoperability. In the upcoming decade, simple information sharing at the sectoral level will remain a problem, e.g., exchanging medical records among doctors taking care of the same patient. Further, inter-sectional semantic and processual interoperability has to be achieved to enable the integration of information from various sources, not only within the healthcare system. Zuckerberg probably didn’t think about it when he talked about the metaverse becoming widespread in 5-10 years.
Accumulation of data on every aspect of human life will also signify a gradual loss of privacy. Will people accept such a profound intervention in their lives? Let us not forget that any data, including digital identity, may be lost in a cyberattack. In practice, that would mean losing control of your own life in the digital world. The promise of the metaverse, which seems intriguing at first sight, can become a disappointment. Living in The Matrix may soon turn boring compared to the real world with its variety of stimuli, perceived with different senses, and more creative than even the best-programmed universe.
In healthcare, it is also necessary to consider the need for clinical trials of the safety and efficiency of this form of teleconsultations. To consult a doctor within metaverse, you will need not only suitable hardware (computer, VR goggles, broadband) and software but also precise and affordable home devices to measure health parameters. Otherwise, the doctor will not be able to access real-time data. Instead, they will only have a chance to examine an un-updated, and thus useless, avatar.
The digital twin would have to be “complete” in terms of information. Artificial intelligence algorithms, without full-range data, may commit potentially fatal medical errors due to incomplete information input. Of course, doctors do not have access to exhaustive information about the patient’s health either, considering only the critical issues. However, AI algorithms cannot see the “full picture” as humans do.
Healthcare needs quality as much as fun
Virtual reality is already used in medicine, helping in pain relief or mental disorders treatments. However, this is only the beginning. By adopting some elements of the metaverse, telehealth can become an entirely new form of healthcare delivery. More precise, personalized, independent of location, more human.
But the strongest part of the metaverse may be the element of fun. Healthcare must offer a completely new experience to become effective, especially regarding prevention. So it may be that the metaverse will increase the percentage of people coming in for checkups and screenings as soon as they become easy and enjoyable.
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