What just a few years ago could be considered the beginning of a futuristic science fiction novel is increasingly becoming reality. In October 2021, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg presented his vision of a metaverse – an expansion of digital space that is supposed to represent the next stage in the development of the Internet and social technology. Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is set to become the new digital gold standard for social interaction, virtual work, gaming and online commerce and is already in the development phase. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will enable users to move around and interact with the digital world quickly and without barriers. Players from the fashion industry, retail or the games industry quickly jumped on the bandwagon: Large corporations such as H&M, LEGO or Walmart are already trying to gain a foothold in the digital world with advertising space and their own stores, which are being built on virtual properties – sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of euros.
Healthcare goes Metaverse: From virtual hospital to data treasure for medical research
With these rapid developments, the question quickly arises as to whether the healthcare industry must also take the Metaverse trend into account. Admittedly, at first glance the Metaverse seems to want to offer a new platform primarily to technology and consumer giants. On closer inspection, however, the concept also opens up a whole range of opportunities for the healthcare market to create innovative offerings for patients and tap into the new target group of young and digitally affine users. The spectrum of conceivable application scenarios is broad: whether VR therapy sessions, surgery planning via hologram, shopping in the virtual pharmacy, clinical studies with data from the Metaverse or the virtual office of one’s own health insurance company – in the Metaverse there should be a suitable niche and use case for almost every player in the healthcare industry.
Telemedicine: The Metaverse as a New Home for Digital Service Providing
It is already becoming apparent that the metaverse trend could soon gain momentum. With Aimedis, the first company – normally specializing in health data and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – has presented plans for the implementation and design of its own health metaverse called Aimedis Health City. With gastroenterologist Dr. Javier Mendoza, it also welcomes its first physician to the company’s own and fully digital Metaverse hospital. This example makes it clear that virtual care in the future is likely to go well beyond video consultations and the monitoring of individual parameters. Aimedis said that the long-term goal of the Metaverse hospital is to use VR technology to perform clinical exams digitally and allow medical professionals to consult and monitor patients remotely.
Thinking a little further, the metaverse could become particularly exciting in the future for the treatment of chronic and mental illnesses or in aftercare, since communities can be created in the virtual space of the metaverse and service providers from a wide range of disciplines can be brought together. What is often associated with complex appointment coordination and logistics in the real world can easily be implemented in the virtual world. The fact that such digital communities can also be used to reduce stigmas and provide education is illustrated by the example of insulin pump manufacturer Insulet Corporation. To support diabetes sufferers, a few weeks ago the company launched a virtual diabetes island and a character with an insulin pump in the game Animal Crossing. Those affected can obtain information at stands and raise awareness of their condition via their character.
The Metaverse as a Data Marketplace: A Possible Path to Clinical Trials and Health Services Research 2.0
But the hospital in the Metaverse should not be enough: Aimedis additionally plans to build an NFT marketplace for health data, taking a similar approach to the British non-profit organization DeHealth. The basic idea is that patients should have their health data in their own hands and be able to share it with their healthcare providers whenever they wish. At the same time, the idea is to create an opportunity to trade the data via a marketplace and thus make it available to scientific research, for example. With this collected data and information, the health metaverse holds considerable potential for clinical trials and health services research, the findings of which can be used for medical innovations and the optimization of care across sectors. For stakeholders in science, including the pharmaceutical industry, the metaverse could thus shed a completely new light on the availability and usability of health data in the future.
Role model Nike, BMW & Co.: The Metaverse as a future presentation surface for health players?
The U.S. drugstore chain CVS Health also seems to be picking up on this logic and plans to secure its place as the Metaverse’s first virtual pharmacy. To this end, CVS is already working on the transfer of its products to the digital space: from prescription drugs and wellness offers to beauty and care products. In addition, the digital pharmacy will offer its customers a virtual consultation
With medical, nutritional and wellness advice, the concept is just as broad as the product range targeted by CVS. It will be exciting to see when other healthcare players follow these efforts and start working on their own presence in the virtual universe.
Light and shadow: To use the possibilities of the metaverse, challenges must be dealt with consciously
Even if it will still take a few years before the metaverse actually conquers our everyday lives, it is never too early for healthcare players, but also patients, to think about the opportunities and challenges of the metaverse. It is just as important to evaluate possible fields of application early on and to take advantage of them in good time as it is to be aware of the limitations of the new, virtual world. Even though it holds potential for the further development of telemedical services and a new form of research, issues such as inclusivity, data protection and accessibility, but also the creation of a solid data basis, for example in the form of virtual twins, should be considered at an early stage. In particular, the topic of digital health education – which seems to get short shrift in the current digitization process – will have to take on a new significance on the way to the metaverse.