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Introducing the healthcare metaverse

By Mindo - 29th Nov 2021

Traditional healthcare institutions won’t have a choice on whether they embrace new technologies.

Facebook, one of the largest technology companies on the planet, recently changed its name to ‘Meta’, signifying its aspiration to become the ultimate ‘Metaverse’ company of the future.
But what is the metaverse? What will it mean for society in general and, more specifically, how might it alter the world of healthcare? Let’s start with what the metaverse is not. The metaverse is not virtual reality, nor is it simply connecting with others in a virtual world.

Using a primitive modem and an internet relay chat (IRC) I was able to explore a virtual world and communicate online with others in the early 90s. Virtual reality wasn’t yet widely available but most of the building blocks were in place. This was not the metaverse, because the metaverse is not a place or a technology.

The metaverse is a time.It is a time when we spend more time immersed in a digital world than the real world.Do I think it is wise to spend more time absorbed in a digital world rather than the real one? No, I don’t.

But what I think doesn’t really matter.What matters is the direction of travel of history. We must simply do our best to understand what the metaverse means for us and how we relate to it in the future. Don’t think we are already at the cusp of being in the metaverse?

Have a look at the screen time app on your phone. You are probably reading this on your phone or tablet right now. The average smart phone user interacts with their phone for almost five and a half hours per day. For the adults among us, we probably spend another several hours on Zoom calls or sending emails. For our kids, that time is likely spent on a gaming console.

Don’t think we are in the metaverse yet? The 1985 Live Aid concert was one of the largest live performances ever held, with almost 162,000 people in attendance across the UK and USA. In 2020, the Chinese group TFBoys held a virtual concert with 786,000 global paying attendees. The shared reality game Roblox currently has 164 million users worldwide and even has its own digital currency that has a real-world value.

Experiences and items in the digital world are taking on the same significance as those in the real world.
Don’t believe me?

The artist Beeple sold a selection of his digital artwork for almost $70 million earlier this year. This is a collection of artworks that you physically cannot touch and only exists in the digital realm. As the famed venture capitalist Marc Andreesson said, “software is going to eat the world”, and healthcare will not be spared that fate.

The healthcare metaverse is not simply about virtual consultations. We all embraced that at the height of the Covid pandemic last year and are aware of its limitations. But remember, this is only the beginning.The current technology stack is akin to using the very first iPhone, which I bought in New York in 2009 and had to solder the sim card to trick it into thinking it was a US phone and manually code the software to make it function on an Irish network; not pretty, but it worked.

This is where digital health is today; a clunky patchwork quilt of semi useful technologies that in general work, but the overall experience is suboptimal. This is going to change much faster than you think. That is because we are linear thinkers and technology changes on an exponential basis. Remember, in 2008, no one had a smartphone.Today’s digital health is the Nokia 3310 equivalent.

Currently, the average age of clinicians and patients is over 50 years of age, not exactly digital technology natives.However, my 10-month-old can already interact with a smartphone, will likely attend an increasing number of concerts virtually and when his time comes will undoubtedly want to avail of his healthcare where possible in a digital format and pay for it in a digital cryptocurrency. But healthcare systems are still using technology from the 1980s, they will never catch up I hear you say. Who said consumers of healthcare will be reliant on legacy healthcare systems and won’t simply choose to interface with the solutions that serve them best?

Traditional healthcare institutions won’t be given a choice as to whether they embrace these technologies.They will either have to adapt or get left behind. With almost 50 per cent of clinicians burning out in these legacy systems and with employment contracts that appear less and less appealing, there will be no shortage of highly skilled clinicians looking for an alternative form of work.

Patients and clinicians will vote with their feet; they are already. The users and providers of healthcare will become a global mix and there is no reason why an Irish diabetic won’t choose to see their clinician in Hong Kong and Irish doctors won’t chose to work for a digital healthcare group in Singapore, but base themselves in Galway, or even the South of France.

Yes, there will be a residual need for a physical footprint for many of these services, but much of it will move into the metaverse, for patients, clinicians, and healthcare institutions alike. In many ways, the metaverse is already here. We are just at the very early days of it, where the user experience and interfaces are subpar, but its exponential change will radically alter almost everything about how we live our lives, and in healthcare it will be no different.

The question is are you ready?
If not, I suggest you ask your kids for some help.

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