Healthcare enters the metaverse with VR
When Facebook rebranded as Meta in October 2021, the technology giant indicated that its focus would shift toward “bringing the metaverse to life.” Doing so would expand social experiences into three dimensions via virtual reality (VR) or project them into the physical world through augmented reality (AR).
Citing the decades-long progression from desktop to web to mobile—and from text to photos to video—Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the metaverse “the next platform.” He predicted it would be even more immersive, “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.”
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Further, Zuckerberg stated that Meta would sell its VR/AR devices at cost or offer subsidies to make them available to more people. “Our hope is that within the next decade, the metaverse will reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers,” he added.
Virtual Reality takes hold in healthcare
While Meta doesn’t control the metaverse, the company clearly sees huge potential for immersive technology across industries. In healthcare, the promise has already taken root. A recent study estimates the VR market in healthcare will earn over $5 billion in revenue by the end of 2028, with compound annual growth pegged at 42%.
Emerging foundational applications are being used in surgical procedures and medical training, as well as diagnostics, rehabilitation, and pain management. Consider the following examples:
- George Washington University is using a VR tool for neuro- and thoracic surgery. Inspired by flight simulators that train fighter pilots, the medical platform enables surgeons to virtually explore a patient’s brain and body prior to performing a procedure. Patient-specific VR reconstructions of CT and MRI scans help the surgeon with procedure planning, testing of surgical techniques, and patient education.
- UConn Health’s Orthopedic Department trains surgical residents through a low-risk VR environment. For instance, when residents insert a pin in a bone via VR, they sharpen their 3D spatial awareness while learning how to reduce the fracture, position the X-ray for the best view, and optimize pin placement. A separate study published in 2020 found that senior surgical residents who trained using VR learned 570% faster than those who used a traditional learning approach.
- Cedars-Sinai Medical Center discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic that it could use VR to diagnose conditions such as glaucoma. Doctors developed a program that lets remote patients have their eyes examined by wearing a VR headset. Brennan Spiegel, director of health services research at Cedars-Sinai, said the technology is applicable to “any number of other conditions” while delivering accurate home-based diagnoses.
- At Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, therapists translate rehab exercises by immersing patients into a simulated sport, gaming or routine environment. Patients experiencing balance or coordination deficits use an interactive VR system to improve their strength, conditioning, and endurance.
- Beth Deaconess Medical Center conducted a randomized controlled trial to determine whether VR could minimize the need for sedatives during hand surgery. Patients in the VR group viewed programming of their choice via head-mounted display during their operation. The study found that VR immersion during surgery led to significant reductions in sedative doses (260 mg of propofol less than patients receiving “usual” care). VR-using patients also had shorter post-operative lengths of stay.
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Future VR applications tied to insurance coverage
VR has staked out an established presence and a bright path forward in healthcare. According to Cedars-Sinai’s Spiegel, it’s likely that payers will eventually cover VR services for evidence-based treatments after they’ve gained approval from FDA. “The future will be prescribing these therapies to people at home who already, increasingly, have access to headsets or will be able to get access through insurance,” Spiegel concluded.
Healthcare organizations that establish viable VR programs now will be a step ahead when VR goes fully mainstream.
Frank Irving is a Philadelphia-based content writer and communications consultant specializing in healthcare and technology.