The medical metaverse is here. While Mark Zuckerberg is being slated for Meta’s surreal graphics and out of touch presentations, healthcare professionals have silently been using the technologies underpinning Web 3 to train surgeons and treat social anxiety. However, the industry believes it is just getting started.

“As the metaverse expands at an exponential rate, new opportunities in healthcare emerge,” Evgen Verzun, founder of Kaizen Finance, tells Verdict.

The Zuck may struggle to be taken seriously by the Twitterati. However, he can be attributed as the person who has kicked off the whole metaverse craze. He announced the rebranding Facebook to Meta in October 2021 in order to underpin the company’s pivot towards becoming a metaverse business.

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The social media giant’s CEO evangelised the coming of the metaverse last year, sermonising how it would basically be the biggest thing to happen to the internet since smartphones. He envisioned the next stage of the internet would give users a sense of presence with each other through virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) or even holograms.

The news set off a landslide in the tech community. Suddenly it seemed as if every company wanted to rebrand itself as a metaverse business. Their pivots seemed to work: metaverse companies have raked in billions of dollars in venture capital funding this year.

Metaverse became such a big buzzword partly because the phrase doesn’t have a commonly adopted definition.

Apart from it being a way to bring digital and real realms closer together, businesses have been left free to instil whatever meaning into the word that suits them.

That’s why everyone from video game developers like Epic Games and Roblox to tech giants like NVIDIA and Microsoft have been able to refer to themselves as metaverse companies.

Some believe it’s too early to define what the metaverse means because it’s still being built. As noted by WIRED, the internet existed in the 1970s but no one had an idea of what it would look like in 2022.

Despite the vagueness, Zuckerberg’s cringy presentations and some strange-looking game worlds seemingly designed to peddle non-fungible tokens, experts believe medical professionals are next in line to benefit from the metaverse.

“The metaverse could transform how people work, shop, communicate and consume content,” Rupantar Guha, an analyst at research firm GlobalData, told Medical Device Network.

More than eight in 10 healthcare executives expect the metaverse to have a positive impact on the industry, according to a report from Accenture. The report even said that the metaverse is “the next horizon” in healthcare.

In fact, healthcare professionals already use components of the metaverse.

“The metaverse components are now playing an important role in healthcare, including the expanded use of VR in medical education, the implementation of AR in surgery, gamification to connect hospital staff and patients, interoperability, and more,” says Verzun.

So has the medical metaverse already arrived?

The medical metaverse is already a reality. That became clear in early August when the BBC reported that a team of international surgeons had been training in VR for months before successfully separating two three-year-old twins with conjoined heads.

The two Brazilian twins, Bernardo and Arthur Lima, had to undergo seven surgeries after being born sharing vital veins in their brains.

VR programs helped surgeons from around the world work together in virtual spaces to plan and execute the unprecedented procedure.  

It’s not only surgeons that are making the most of this opportunity in healthcare right now either.

Doctors are currently treating patients with phobias like acrophobia by placing them in virtual spaces to challenge their fears.

As well as this, VR is also being used by doctors to treat those suffering from mental disorders like OCD and social anxiety.

Future healthcare professionals are being trained with the immersive hardware too, as computer-generated worlds allow for a full 360° view of a human body.

On top of doctor training, the doctor-patient experience is being made easier with digital experiences.

“We see that remote doctors visits can be enhanced to create a highly immersive experience within a virtualised provider space,” Kuruvilla Matthew, chief innovation architect at UST, explains to Verdict.

Matthew believes this will “evolve into the next generation of care facilities, wellness spaces and hospitals, that are housed in a metaverse.”

The potential future of the medical metaverse

All of this work is being done before the full-blown vision of a metaverse has even come into fruition, so it seems likely that it’ll keep growing.

These new opportunities will look to build upon what is already being done with VR and AR.

“In the metaverse, doctors and surgeons will be able to leverage the benefits of the connected ecosystem and gain expertise through the power of immersive collaboration,” Matthew tells Verdict.

In the metaverse, medical students could be learning with “interactive holographic projections” and “will have the ability to dive deeper into human physiology”.

Several ventures are already angling for the opportunity to provide those services.

“Tech startups are partnering with large healthcare companies to bring AR- and VR-based medical training into the market,” Guha tells Verdict.

In one example back in 2020, Johnson & Jonson partnered with Osso VR to distribute around 200 Oculus Quest headsets to surgeons around the US.

“Spineology, a spinal surgery device maker, partnered with Ghost Productions, a VR surgical simulation developer, to integrate VR-based training for its sales teams,” Guha says.

Spineology is reportedly educating sales personnel on their devices in order to improve engagement with medical providers.

“These experiences will help them learn at an accelerated pace,” Matthew says.

How realistic is the vision?

Although elements of the metaverse are already in motion within the healthcare industry, a whole load of factors could limit its large ambitions.

Guha makes the claim that the metaverse will require “massive investment by healthcare companies” if it was to really change the landscape of the industry.

“They will need to invest in user interfaces that consumers can access easily and comfortably,” Guha tells Verdict.

“In addition, services offered via these user interfaces must be immersive and informative to make the experience valuable.”

This will require companies to deliver extensive training to professionals in order for them to treat and diagnose their patients as effectively in the virtual world as they can in person.

Another thing to think about when imagining a medical metaverse is the highly regulated world of the healthcare industry.

Despite there evidently being a large amount of interest in the potential of the technology, Guha says that industry regulators will “demand compelling results from technologies such as AR, VR and AI to allow large-scale implementation”.

Kevin Poulter, a partner at law firm Freeths, echoes this point to Verdict: “Life in the metaverse presents most, if not all, the same opportunities and problems as any other place where people come to gather, whether for fun, entertainment or, indeed, work.

“Employees are, of course, still bound by the terms of their contract of employment. But as with the real-world workplace, some rules, policies and expectations should be carefully considered, recorded and communicated afresh, to protect employees and the employer.”

Are the graphics even good enough?

Right now, the actual footage of the metaverse we’ve seen has left a lot to be desired. The idea of living and operating in a virtual world will need something immersive, but so far it looks undetailed and unrendered, like something out of an old video game.

In reality, for the metaverse to deliver on its huge vision, hardware and software would need to be available and accessible for an affordable price – something that just isn’t happening right now.

Although a lot of evidence has been shown to how healthcare will benefit from VR and AR technologies, it’s still substantially easier to communicate in person.

Until Zuckerberg’s metaverse can show immersive spaces and movement unrecognisable to real life, it’s likely healthcare will remain mostly in the physical world.

GlobalData is the parent company of Verdict and its sister publications.