- The Metaverse is making VR doctor’s visits a reality.
- VR in healthcare has widespread applications from surgical training to patient consultations.
- Privacy challenges are a major stumbling block.
The last time I visited a doctor’s office was in October, to get my MRI results for a broken leg. It was a torturous 45-minute wait in a packed waiting room full of chattering people; not the most pleasant of experiences in this age of Covid. A better option might have been for the doctor to offer me a telehealth consultation. Although my doctor didn’t offer me that service, there are many that do. McKinsey & Company  report that 84% of physicians are currently offering virtual visits, with telehealth visits increasing 38-fold since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although telehealth has its benefits—including reduced costs for both the provider and patient, a telephone call or video conference chat lacks the personal touch of an in-person visit. On the horizon is a better option that combines the best of both worlds—Metahealth—a virtual reality platform that provides healthcare via the Metaverse.
Dr. Jane Thomason, writing in the December 2021 issue of Journal of Metaverse , states that the intersection of metaverse and patient is a lot closer than you might think, mostly because the advent of Blockchain and gamification has moved the Metaverse from fiction to reality. The World Economic Forum  predicts that healthcare will undergo a major transformation over the next decade, with digital services at front and center. With the Covid-19 pandemic still in full swing, augmented reality for patients is being pushed to the forefront of the healthcare arena.
Taking Steps Towards MetaHealth
Many companies are making headway with patient experiences that would have seemed like science fiction at the beginning on the century. Plummeting VR costs and advances in smartphone technology have led to an explosion of interest in VR-based treatments for patients with a wide variety of disorders. The use of VR for training is becoming popular in many other areas including disaster response and military training .
Recent advances in healthcare-related virtual reality experiences include:
- OptiVu™ Mixed Reality , which is slated for release this winter, will use Microsoft HoloLens to provide an array of services including surgical instrument assembly, patient assessment pre- and post-surgery, and mixed-reality experiences for clinicians and their patients. Avatars will provide lifelike consultations, diagnoses, and personalized care and treatment .
- Extended reality headsets are also being used to alter the psychological experiences of users for the treatment of addictions and phobias. The first ever VR clinic opened in Korea in 2005 for patients with alcohol addiction, schizophrenia, and social phobia . Since then, VR has become a widespread tool for treatment, without the full-on dangers of real life exposure to trauma. For example, a person with “flight phobia” can experience a trip on an airplane with the knowledge that it isn’t real, yet feeling like they are actually being exposed to their phobia.
- Medtronic acquired Digital Surgery, a provider of AI driven surgical data and analytics, in 2020. Their flagship platform, Touch Surgery  now provides “Surgical training through immersive, interactive simulations” with simulations of more than 200 procedures in 17 specialties. Surgeons can learn new surgical techniques, rehearse for surgery, and test their knowledge through the Touch Surgery™ mobile app.
Ethical Quandaries of Metahealth
The idea of not having to waste an afternoon on a doctor’s appointment is appealing, but there are some serious issues that need addressing before Metahealth visits become widespread.
One of the major issues is that VR can pose mental health risks; excessive VR use has been linked to Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, giving frequent users chronic sensations of unreality, like they are living in a dream .
Another pitfall is one that’s already a topic of debate throughout the non-virtual world: data privacy. VR technology can record private data of the kind you may not want leaked to the world. While a patient might feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics like erectile dysfunction or breast lumps in the privacy of a doctor’s office, the risk that these recordings could be leaked is very real. One possible solution is to use VR to bypass the waiting room for sniffles and sneezes, reserving a physical visit for those personal issues you want to be kept private. But even that isn’t a guarantee; about 90% of medical notes are now online  and an unhackable system isn’t yet a reality.
Image: AdobeStock [Licensed]
 Slater, M., et. al. (2020). “The ethics of realism in virtual and augmented reality. Frontiers in Virtual Reality”, 1, 1. Advance online publication. doi:10.3389/frvir.2020.00001
 Touch Surgery