Is the metaverse the future of health?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in 2020, a visit to the doctor was almost always involved waiting rooms and seeing your physician in person. But ever since movement restrictions were put in place to stop the spread of the virus, digital health services have become commonplace (and even expected) by patients.

According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through 4 of the largest telehealth providers in the US, there was a 154% increase in telehealth visits in March 2020 compared to the same period a year ago.¹ Since the early days of the pandemic, the figures took a slight dip a year later. But telehealth usage in Feb 2021 still remains 38x higher than what it was in Feb 2020.²

Seeing that this figure has stabilized for several months, it suggests that increased use of technology in healthcare is likely to stay. And we're not just talking about telehealth. 

The global digital healthcare rush

Digital health encompasses a range of technologies ranging from mobile health apps, electronic health records, and even artificial intelligence (AI) for more personalized treatment.³ ⁴

Seeing how broad the scope of opportunities is in the landscape, it's no wonder that investment in digital health companies has doubled in 2020 compared to 2019.

And some have even estimated that about $250 billion of US healthcare spending could eventually move to virtual forms of care.²

Furthermore, it's become a global phenomenon as countries all over the world (from Canada to the UK and India) are also seeing a similar transition to increased use of technology in patient care.⁵ ⁶ ⁷

At a consumer-provider level, there's also been a shift in patient and doctor acceptance of telehealth consultations. A report by management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, revealed that since the start of the pandemic, 57% of healthcare providers have viewed telehealth more favourably since the COVID-19 compared to pre-pandemic.

They also found that 76% of consumers are now interested in using telehealth. This is compared to only 11% engaging such services in 2019.²

For some, a healthcare facility's quality of digital health technology can even be a key deciding factor in whether a patient stays or goes. In the Accenture 2020 Digital Health Consumer Survey, it was reported that 26% of consumers said that they would change healthcare providers for better digital services.

Despite the fact that the accelerated shift to digital healthcare was born out of necessity, people have quickly realized its benefits.

The benefits of digital healthcare

  • Increased safety through social distancing

In a pandemic, one of the most obvious benefits of the use of telehealth and medical apps is that it reduces the spread of airborne diseases. Patients can still receive care virtually without even having to leave their homes. This increases the safety of both the patient and doctor, as well as any other individuals the person might have come into contact with on the way to a clinic or hospital.

  • Accessible and convenient

By bringing consultations online, it reduces the logistical barriers to seeing a doctor for many disadvantaged communities. This is is especially advantageous to rural populations or lower SES urban communities that face a lack of healthcare providers.⁸ ⁹

And even for those in metropolitan areas where access to a doctor is not an issue, virtual consultations may be more convenient for those who are time-poor.

  • Decreased costs and increased revenue

Digital health services also allow for much more efficient use of medical professionals' time — either by undertaking various tasks or reducing how long it takes to complete them.

Routine consultations can be processed a lot faster when they're done online — like getting a script for your usual prescription medication. While the proliferation of wearable devices can help doctors with remote monitoring of patients' symptoms. AI has also been used to help with initial health screenings and reduce manpower needed for hospital triaging.¹⁰ ¹¹

A report by The IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science estimates that the US national healthcare expenditure could be reduced by about 1.4% (approximately $46 billion) with the use of health apps.¹²

  • Supports more patient-centred care

Even before the pandemic, medical communities have long stressed the importance of patient-centred care. This is where patients work alongside clinicians to meet their individual health needs, rather than being focused on what the clinician does to a patient.

Counterintuitively, the digital transformation of healthcare has helped to facilitate this process — even though it may result in less face-to-face time between patients and clinicians.

As noted by a working group from the International Hospital Federation (IHF), several studies have found that the use of digital health services has improved self-management, medication adherence, and ultimately clinical outcomes.¹³

And here's what one respondent had to say about how digital technology has helped to improve patient-provider communication: “I think digital technology provides a lot more options for providing care, getting in touch with healthcare professionals, and keeping track of appointments, tests, procedures, and results. I think digital technology has allowed the patient to be more knowledgeable on what is going on within their body and can collaborate with healthcare professionals in a more productive way.”

But of course, as with any major transformation that we see in any industry, a new set of issues emerge with it. 

Hurdles that digital health still need to overcome

  • The personal touch is lost

While some feel that digital services can help improve the patient-doctor relationship, others may miss that unique connection of face-to-face rapport. As stated in the IHF working group report, some patients have given feedback like: “Nowadays you don’t meet a doctor or a nurse when things are taken care of by phone or digital platform. It makes me feel lonely.”¹³

In a more extreme example, the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fremont, California sparked outrage in the community when a doctor told a patient he was going to die through a video call presented on a telepresence robot.¹⁴

Examples like these go to show that digital health will continue to test medical and social boundaries. And clinicians will need to think deeply about both the intended and unintended impact of patients.

As health systems research, Dr. Jay Shaw has said in an interview with the Canadian Medical Association Journal, "Whenever a technology is used in new ways, when boundaries are pushed, that’s when professional groups accidentally learn the limits of what they can and cannot do with this technology."¹⁵

  • Digital and personal data safety

Another pressing issue surrounding the digitization of healthcare relates to the safety of patients’ clinical data and preserving anonymity. And such concerns are not unwarranted.

Even before the surge of interest in digital health services in 2020, the healthcare sector has been one of the most vulnerable to cyber-attacks. And the COVID-19 pandemic made it worse. One report found that incidents of attacks more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2019.¹⁶

The healthcare sector in other countries also seems to be facing the same issues. A report by the CyberPeace Institute studied 235 cyberattacks on healthcare organizations across 33 nations from June 2020 to September 2021. They found that over 10 million records were stolen during this period. And this included highly personal information like medical records, social security numbers, financial data, and more.¹⁷

Also worrying was the fact that many of these attacks were ransomware. This is where hackers lock the IT infrastructure of the organization and demand a ransom in exchange for unlocking it. In some cases, this led to patients being directed to other places or had appointments cancelled.

If the sector is to move forward with digitization, there needs to be an increased focus on online security because the stakes are high. This is a sector where people are dealing with their health. And in many cases, life and death.

  • Some may still be left behind

Digital health services have helped to bridge certain communities to clinicians they might otherwise not have had access to. But others may still be left out. This includes people that don't have access to the internet, mobile phones, and computers. Or those that just aren't comfortable with discussing their health virtually, as it's a highly personal issue.⁶

And this is why experts have suggested that maintaining a hybrid of digital and in-person services is essential. In line with the patient-centric approach to healthcare, this is so that consumers still have a choice about what will suit their individual needs best. Technology should be seen as a way to support face-to-face patient-clinician interactions — not a way to completely replace it.⁴

Despite the hurdles, the adoption of virtual healthcare practices is most likely here to stay. And the evolution of what remote healthcare looks like will continue to expand to address the limitations of current technology.

The next frontier of digital healthcare: The Metaverse

Ever since Facebook changed its name to Meta, people have been eagerly envisioning what the metaverse will look like in years to come. So far, it's been described as a hyper-realistic virtual world where people will live, work, play — and possibly even receive healthcare.

Facilitating the metaverse experience are a group of technologies like AI, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR). Just to refresh quickly:¹⁸ ¹⁹ ²⁰ ²¹

  • Artificial intelligence (AI): Intelligence shown by machines that mimic the learning and problem-solving capabilities of the human brain. 

  • Augmented reality (AR): Real-world objects are enhanced by superimposing digital content. 

  • Virtual reality (VR): A simulated experience that is completely separate from the real world. 

  • Mixed reality (MR): A hybrid of VR and the real world where digital and physical elements exist together.

And while the idea of a doctor performing virtual surgery on a patient might sound far-fetched at the moment, it might become a reality sooner than we think.

Surgeons at John Hopkins Hospital are already using AR headsets to project images of patients' internal anatomy (based on CT scans) to guide surgeries. While VR headsets have been used to simulate fear-inducing experiences as part of exposure therapy in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.²²

In places like Taiwan, The Microsoft HoloLens (an MR headset) is also bringing a new dimension to telehealth consultations. Nurses or GPs on house calls can effectively collaborate with a specialist that couldn't be present using the HoloLens which shows exactly what the attending clinician is seeing to the specialist.²³

The possible applications of these technologies are literally endless. This includes enhanced medical training like using VR to visualise surgical procedures to facilitating the design of operating theatres with virtual interactive displays.²² ²⁴ With the vast impact that the metaverse is having on healthcare, it's no wonder that money has been pouring into these areas.

According to Polaris Market Research, AR and VR in the healthcare market were estimated to be valued at USD$2.01 billion in 2020 and it's expected to grow significantly in the years to come.²⁵

The digital transformation of healthcare is an exciting space with plenty of room for innovation that could literally help save lives. So it's no wonder that consumers and healthcare professionals alike have quickly embraced and adapted to the new reality of how medicine is practised.

It looks like the metaverse will be our new long-term reality in all aspects of living — including healthcare.

  1. Trends in the use of telehealth during the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, January–March 2020 | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  2. Telehealth: A quarter-trillion-dollar post-COVID-19 reality? | Mckinsey & Company

  3. Digital health (digital healthcare) | Tech Target

  4. How the digital revolution can make healthcare more inclusive | World Economic Forum

  5. Rural telemedicine use before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: Repeated cross-sectional study (2021)

  6. The impact of Covid-19 on the use of digital technology in the NHS | Nuffield Trust

  7. Digital connections to improve India’s health (2021)

  8. Virtual healthcare is the future – If organizations can clear these hurdles | Forbes

  9. The reported benefits of telehealth for rural Australians (2010)

  10. Digital health | Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

  11. Digital triage: Novel strategies for population health management in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (2020)

  12. The growing value of digital health | The IQVIA Institute

  13. The impact of digital transportation on patient experience: Reflections on patient-centered care from around the world | IHF

  14. A doctor in California appeared via video link to tell a patient he was going to die. The man's family is upset | CNN Health

  15. Preserving the human touch in medicine in a digital age (2019)

  16. 6 Industries most vulnerable to cyber attacks | Western Governors University

  17. If healthcare doesn't strengthen its cybersecurity, it could soon be in critical condition | World Economic Forum

  18. Artificial intelligence (AI) | IBM

  19. What is augmented reality (AR)? A practical overview | Threekit

  20. Virtual reality | Wikipedia

  21. Mixed reality | Wikipedia

  22. The first metaverse experiments? Look to what’s already happening in medicine | CNBC

  23. HoloLens and house calls: Telehealth technology delivers virtual consultations | Microsoft

  24. Using virtual reality for surgical room layout and scenario planning | Virtalis

  25. Augmented reality & virtual reality in healthcare market share, size, trends, industry analysis report, by component (hardware, software, service); by technology; by region; segment forecast, 2021 - 2028 | Polaris Market Research

The author, Dawn Teh, is a health writer and former psychologist who enjoys exploring topics about the mind, body, and what helps humans thrive.

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