Maddy Irwin joined GlobalData’s Thematic Intelligence Team in September 2022. She is particularly interested in analysing how tech themes affect the healthcare industry.    

Lara Virrey: How can the metaverse help medical device companies meet some of the sector’s challenges today?  

Maddy Irwin: The healthcare industry has experienced rapid digitalisation in recent years, changing how healthcare is delivered and improving patient outcomes. The metaverse has the huge potential to provide better and faster healthcare facilities to users in a digital space with an immersive experience.

Emerging technologies such as AR and VR are becoming increasingly routine for professional training, surgical assistance, and treatment of psychological and neurological disorders. In the pharma and medical devices industries, AR, VR, and AI are rapidly accelerating drug discovery and manufacturing and generating supply chain efficiencies.

The metaverse has the ability to improve access to care for patients regardless of location and reduce costs in care delivery whilst enhancing the quality and accuracy of diagnostics and surgery with advanced technologies.  

Lara Virrey: What are the most promising applications of the metaverse in the medical industry?   

Maddy Irwin: The metaverse could provide new and invaluable opportunities for immersive, hyper-realistic, simulation-based training, revolutionising medical training for students and doctors. VR is used to take trainees inside the human body, providing a 360° view with precise anatomical detail.

In the metaverse, a patient’s pathophysiology, anatomy, and physiology could be viewed together, allowing a deeper understanding of a patient’s problem and improving treatment options. For areas where access to practical training is limited, medical students can share the same virtual facilities as students studying in hospitals and schools with greater opportunities.

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For surgeons, virtual practice allows for greater complexity for specific procedures. New surgical methods or innovative surgical tools can be trialled and tested before being used in real-world procedures. In the metaverse, doctors could use digital twins to simulate different surgical approaches to see potential outcomes without putting a patient at risk.

The metaverse could also provide a virtual platform for collaboration and the sharing of knowledge between practitioners across the world. This would allow for the planning and execution of complex cases.  

The metaverse could also improve patient engagement. The immersive environment in the metaverse can help doctors to explain diseases and treatment plans to patients. Doctors can use 3D imaging to show disease or injury states to patients and demonstrate different treatment options. Also, by conducting AR simulations of chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, migraine, or diabetes, physicians can better identify potential areas of treatment or therapy. Customers involved in this way can feel more comfortable and confident, leading to better adherence and health outcomes. Immersive environments could also be useful for caregivers, teaching them how to care for a family member at home.

VR has been used successfully as a therapy, particularly for psychological and neurological indications. VR can safely expose and reduce patient phobias and mentally stimulate patients with neurological disorders, aiming to enhance their cognitive functions. The metaverse could enhance support for individuals suffering from mental health issues or chronic conditions by providing virtual support groups, allowing participants to engage in a community. These alternative options may be revolutionary for people who have not had success with drugs or other treatment options.   

Lara Virrey: Who are the leading medical device companies in the metaverse right now, and why?  

Maddy Irwin: Intuitive Surgical uses integrated technologies for its da Vinci surgical systems, which provide robot-assisted surgery. The AI-powered tool has transformed the field of minimally invasive surgery. The SimNow simulation technology uses VR to train the da Vinci system and enables users to practice skills and techniques before performing surgical procedures. Intuitive Surgical’s IRIS platform is an anatomical visualisation service that creates segmented 3D models of a patient’s anatomy using data from CT imaging. The model can be viewed and manipulated throughout a procedure by the surgeon. The AR imaging solution uses AI to give surgeons increased imaging details for surgical planning.   

Johnson & Johnson has filed trademark applications for many of its products in the metaverse, demonstrating its interest in joining the virtual reality world. The Johnson & Johnson Institute, focused on education, provides VR training for surgeons across 23 locations globally. In 2021, the Virtual Reality Preceptorship (VPR) Program was started, which uses VR remote collaboration to bring a preceptor and trainee surgeon together into a simulated operating room environment. This provides personalised mentoring for the trainee and allows the learner to perform a procedure in a scenario suited to their specific goals and weaknesses.   

Lara Virrey: What are the barriers to implementation of the metaverse in the medical industry?    

Maddy Irwin: Although metaverse technologies could reinvent healthcare approaches and bring new experiences to healthcare providers and patients, adoption is still at an early stage. There are currently few use cases in the healthcare industry. Evidence of proven use cases and participation by a critical mass of users are imperative to drive a shift in metaverse investment. Therefore currently, healthcare companies are hesitant to invest in the metaverse. In reality, the metaverse will require massive investment by healthcare companies if it is to change the landscape of the industry significantly.  

Affordability is another limiting factor to widespread adoption. Although AR and VR technologies are showing promise for medical training, healthcare providers are still a long way from adopting metaverse-orientated medical training. Huge investment is required as new technologies entering the market are costly. For example, the Quest Pro standalone VR headset for business use is currently priced at around $1,500.

For use in medical training, students and doctors will need access to new equipment and a fast and reliable internet connection for video streaming. Training of existing practitioners would be costly and time-consuming and could cause increased stress and distraction for busy practitioners trying to use unfamiliar tools. Practicing surgeons would also need to master technologies before being able to use them in practice or to teach junior staff and students. Learning institutions would need to integrate existing medical software and curriculums into the metaverse while considering patents and copyright.   

The metaverse also needs to overcome regulation and data privacy concerns. Multi-sensory experiences in the metaverse will expand the scope of data privacy to include emotional, biometric, and physiological data, meaning users will be monitored at an almost forensic level. The existing strict regulatory regimes around data privacy in general and healthcare specifically will need to be updated to reflect these new technologies before users will feel comfortable storing their sensitive medical information in a virtual world.