6 MINS READ
In the metaverse
The metaverse is one of the most potent emerging paradigm shifts today.
Standing at the convergence of cutting-edge disruptive technologies such as 5G, blockchain, AI-ML, cloud, and internet of things (IoT), among others, it is driving a new age of digital transformation, and unlocking new possibilities.
By creating real-time, persistent, and decentralized virtual worlds with immersive experiences, the metaverse holds tremendous potential for the life sciences and healthcare industry. It can help overcome some of the critical challenges pertaining to medical training, improved disease diagnosis, patient outcomes, clinical trials, remote healthcare, and telemedicine.
We discuss emerging metaverse trends, applications for the life sciences and healthcare industry, early adoption use cases to realize business value, and future opportunities.
What the industry trends say
The metaverse space is expected to see significant traction in the coming decade.
Bloomberg estimates the global metaverse market could approach $800 billion by 2024. Corporations, venture capitalists, and private equity firms have invested more than $120 billion in the metaverse in the first five months of 2022.
Immersive use cases involving augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) dominate today's early version of the metaverse which is commonly referred to as proto-metaverse.
In the post-COVID era, with a rising need for digital care, analysts are bullish on the growing trend of the metaverse in life sciences and healthcare. Major value chain stakeholders, including tech companies, healthcare providers, insurers, and drug and equipment manufacturers, have started driving initiatives around metaverse adoption.
The current focus is on the metaverse’s immersive capabilities. With a market valuation of around $2 billion in 2020, the AR and VR market is expected to grow fast.
What it means for the sector
Life sciences and healthcare industries have unique industry challenges.
These include the ever-rising regulatory pressure, the staffing shortage in healthcare, active patient involvement in decision-making, building and maintaining trust with patients, driving clinical trial participation, complicated manufacturing processes, and complex devices, among others. The metaverse promises to usher in the next level of digital revolution. It will create opportunities for enterprises to address some of the critical industry challenges.
Early adopters of the proto-metaverse are exploring and leading with innovations. Key metaverse trends of industry leaders include:
Potential business value transformation
Early adoption involves immersive, globally collaborative, and six Degrees of Freedom (6DoF) aspects of the metaverse.
Though actual ROI needs validation, possibilities of the metaverse across life sciences and healthcare ecosystem is exciting. Let’s look at some use cases.
1) Training, education, and skill building
The metaverse’s immersive capabilities—3D visuals, 360 videos, haptics—allow cost-effective, real-life, simultaneous medical staff onboarding, training, and upskilling with higher efficiencies on a larger scale at anytime and anywhere.
No risk simulations and gamifications are powerful utilities that engage the user’s sense of sight, hearing, and touch to create real-life experiences. Medical training is expensive and dependent on availability and cost of cadavers, equipment, and medical professionals. Enterprise can train healthcare professionals on types of equipment and therapeutics, and pharma companies can provide visualization for the drug’s performance and even simulate the experiences caused by various conditions. For instance, some leading medical universities train surgeons in a virtual operating room with a table, instruments, and a virtual patient.
2) Transformation in clinical trials
The metaverse can transform decentralized clinical trials by breaking the physical and geographical barrier, shifting clinical trials from sites to patients’ homes, improving healthy behavior, drug adherence, remote monitoring, and the like.
Patients' safety and data protection are critical for success. Though more innovations will emerge, non-fungible tokens (NFT) hold promise for tokenizing medical records, prescriptions, and medical bills.
3) Immersive therapeutics
Medical interventions delivered using AR, VR, and MR to treat, manage, and prevent a medical disorder are termed as immersive therapeutics. The metaverse enables applications such as cognitive therapy, support groups, psychiatric evaluations, rehabilitation, and—with the support of haptic sensors—even physical therapy.
4) Augmented reality in surgical procedures
It is challenging to train surgeons on surgical tools based on 2D static images. There are complex surgical procedures with multiple learning sequences, which at times, lead to errors.
The metaverse provides an immersive environment where surgeons learn or plan a complex procedure and can practice and prepare the surgery with greater precision and consistency, using technology to simulate each patient's unique pathology in 3D.
For example, a leading MedTech organization partnered with Microsoft, using the latter's HoloLens to render 3D images of operating theatres and optimize the floor plan.
5) Radiology visualization
Today, medical images—during radiology diagnosis—are visualized slice by slice on 2D screens. Providing an advanced visualization of medical imaging has the potential to enhance the value for disease analysis and surgical planning. The immersive and visualization capability of the metaverse can deliver more interactive and realistic medical experiences.
A leading medical device company makes use of VR for effective training of its medical robot. The firm also has an augmented reality imaging solution that uses machine learning algorithms to provide surgeons with critical image details for surgical planning and as a teaching tool.
6) Extended reality for telemedicine
A shortage of nursing assistants, lab technologists, and technicians threaten hospitals’ ability to care for patients. The metaverse offers a potential telehealth solution with the use of extended reality tools. Healthcare workers can provide remote services (diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and care) using augmented reality headsets and wearable devices. At the same time, the immersive nature of VR makes it a great way to distract patients from feeling stressed.
7) Immersive digital twins for simulation
In healthcare, digital twin can create applicable models that enable simulations and insights. It can be provided as an online healthcare service that collects data from patient records and real-time information from wearables to correlate information of patients, doctors, hospitals, and drug and device manufacturers.
The metaverse's immersive and 3D visualization capabilities will enable the use of the digital twin to improve the development of personalized medicine and the performance of medical devices and healthcare organizations.
Enterprise journey on metaverse maturity
We already see precursors to the metaverse in virtual world platforms, like Roblox, Minecraft.
However, enterprise adoption is limited to the immersive aspect over other pillars of the metaverse. The industry is yet to achieve a scalable, persistent, interoperable, real-time 3D virtual world—one that will eventually create the metaverse. The possibility of the metaverse will mature with innovations occurring in ultra-low latency networks, super processing power, decentralized computing, hardware to access the virtual world, among others.
The maturity of this virtual space will be a journey driven by the technological inventions and innovations that the industry will soon witness. Here’s our view of the enterprise metaverse maturity through five phases.
Figure 1: Maturity stages of the metaverse in an enterprise
How life sciences firms can move to a more mature metaverse phase
The metaverse will evolve and mature with technological developments, unleashing business value for the life sciences and healthcare industries and addressing some of the future industry challenges. While there are some grey areas like governance, more regulatory guidance is expected to follow. Currently, some regulatory bodies have introduced a framework for vetting the usage of VR, AR, digital therapeutics, and AI, but HIPAA doesn't extend beyond clinicians' offices. Additionally, privacy concerns regarding patient data collection in the metaverse need to be addressed.
Life sciences and healthcare organizations need to partner with the right technology ecosystem participants to ride the shift from the proto-metaverse phase to a more mature metaverse phase to move ahead of the curve.