After Dubai hosted its first wedding in the metaverse, it recently inaugurated its first medical facility in this virtual dimension. Currently a popular subject, the metaverse has been discussed extensively in terms of how it can transform the work environment, social interactions, business and even the leisure field. However, there hasn’t been much discussion of how it might impact the healthcare industry, despite the fact that this is another area where it could have a seismic effect while futuristic hospitals enter this realm.
First, let’s define the term “metaverse”:
With the aid of (AR) and (VR) technologies, the connected user can access the “metaverse,” a virtual world where they can live a computer-generated life. People are led to create an “ Avatar” which is a representation of themselves and can play, buy or even sell products, lands, arts, etc. Three significant technical trends are coming together in the metaverse, and each one of them has the potential to affect healthcare in its own way. Together, they have the power to develop whole new methods of care delivery that might reduce costs, significantly enhance patient outcomes and satisfy their needs. These include blockchain, digital twins, and telepresence.
The use of the latter, known in the eHealth domain as “telemedicine” increased remarkably after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Telemedicine is transforming the doctor-patient experience:
With this facility, medical service is given remotely to patients wherever they are, through virtual reality tools. The only condition to access and benefit from this service is to be connected to the internet, and more specifically, to the medical system in question.
Consequently, real-time consultations are made easy, and the patient’s health data is transferred to the specialist over the network in order to provide adequate diagnosis and treatment. This technique has advantages concerning time efficiency with no need to be there physically, helps in regions where there is a shortage of medical staff and has benefits in the psychological field as well. In fact, a significant number of psychologists have already resorted to (VR) and (AI) generated devices that analyze patients and their behavior in order to provide them with a suitable treatment.
While a surgical operation cannot be performed online as of yet, surgeries can be attended online. Through the metaverse, specialists might assist the operations remotely by attending them.
This being said, what is the future of hospitals in a world where digitalization is taking over?
The emergence of virtual hospitals within Metaverse:
Investing in the metaverse has become an interest that even important healthcare departments aim to accomplish for its profitable returns in different areas.
For instance, in its efforts to promote medical tourism, Medcare (a private hospital in the UAE) will make use of the metaverse. This will provide potential patients with an opportunity to engage in an immersive virtual online tour of the hospital, boosting transparency and building confidence. Furthermore, actual medical services will be delivered by over 400 professionals.
Also, in India, Yashoda Hospitals, a chain of hospitals in Hyderabad, has joined the metaverse. On this platform, the hospital system wants to provide healthcare services and increase employment.
This eHealth metamorphosis has its potential downsides.
Medical data is highly exposed to cyber-attacks:
When we say “sensitive data“, the first type of personal information that comes to one’s mind is most probably health data.
Actually, one of the essential duties of a Doctor is confidentiality towards their patients and this means the obligation to keep medical records and patients’ history private. So while a medical expert does obey the rules and regulations, malicious online attacks may question their responsibility with data leakage and breaches targeting the healthcare system.
Cyber-attacks are increasing daily with the large amount of data circulating, and more specifically, the health industry seems to be a playground for digital criminals at the moment. For instance, 19 accounts, mostly relating to pharmacies, were compromised, resulting in a data breach for the French insurance company L’Assurance Maladie earlier this year. The dark web, hosting login information from past data breaches is where the hackers most likely found the credentials for these accounts.
So, can you imagine the vulnerability of sensitive information that will exist in a virtual hospital “cloud”?
From an ethical point of view:
(VR) headsets are expensive devices and not everyone has access to them or has the ability to buy such gadgets. This being said, an ethical debate may arise concerning equality of access to medical care via the metaverse.
In addition, the possibility of using distinct identities for various digital places is a risk. Finally, what about parents creating avatars for their children to access medical care through the digital dimension and having their personal data and digital footprints shared since their birth?