Artificial intelligence combined with augmented and virtual reality is setting the foundations for the metaverse across almost every industry. The metaverse is in its novelty phase that gives companies a competitive edge, improves sales and builds brand reputation.
However, in healthcare, the metaverse is proving to be much more. It is not only the natural evolution of telehealth—installed as a new norm after the pandemic—it can also revert healthcare’s most significant barriers and challenges.
The August 2022 Healthcare in the Metaverse report from Market Research Future predicts that by 2030 the healthcare metaverse market will grow by 48.3% CAGR and be worth $5.37 billion. Metaverse technology will cause a disruptive shift in healthcare, providing better surgical precision, opening new channels of treatment and lowering costs while improving patient outcomes. Companies driving this change include Brainlab AG, Novarad Corporation, GE Healthcare, Siemens Healthineers, Meta Platforms Inc., Nvidia, Microsoft, Roblox and gameChange VR, among others.
In terms of mental health, the metaverse has the potential to avert a serious crisis. The 2022 State of Mental Health in America report reveals that nearly 50 million American adults (19.86%) experienced a mental illness in 2019. Over 2.5 million youth struggle with severe depression. Both adults and youth can not access treatment due to lack of insurance, long waiting times, lack of professionals and an overwhelmed and inefficient mental health system.
TechRepublic interviewed Robert Bell, Founder and CEO of 2B3D, a California-founded company, using metaverse technology to provide mental health treatment to U.S. veterans, another group highly affected by the U.S. mental health crisis.
2B3D is migrating its telehealth platforms into its Virtual Reality Medical Environment (VRME), currently under development by its subsidiary VRx Solutions. 2B3D’s telehealth migration will be phased, first focusing on the priority of providing real-time virtual environment treatment for suicide ideation and post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD.
Once 2B3D’s metaverse is validated, they plan to expand to all states and regions, ideally aligned against local VA facilities. “Statistically, more than 800,000 people kill themselves each year in the world, and 45,000 of those individuals live in the United States. Comparably, the high percentage of veteran suicides remains unacceptable, with 6,261 veteran suicides in 2019,” the Founder and CEO of 2B3D told TechRepublic.
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2B3D’s new metaverse project is in the full development stage. They recently completed an initial cognitive testing program with Forge Forward Project, a veteran-owned and operated nonprofit dedicated to ending veteran suicide through the use of VR technology. The cognitive test results will be used to incorporate the most effective therapies for trauma treatments into a virtual reality environment.
“As we migrate from current telehealth platforms to a real-time virtual environment, we will be able to take the frustration out of the experience for the individual; no more waiting on phone lines or being told your symptoms aren’t serious enough to warrant attention,” Bell said.
2B3D’s main goal is to build a metaverse experience that enables a qualified professional treatment. “At a minimum, we envision a 24/7/365 group therapy opportunity,” Bell says.
2B3D’s metaverse efforts have been primarily designed in Unity, a platform for real-time content creation. The company is also eager to examine Unreal Engine 5, an advanced real-time next-generation 3D content and experiences generator tool.
Data security, cybersecurity and accessibility are top priorities for the company. “The 2B3D team understands the challenges with implementing a full technical solution from data storage and cyber security requirements to end-user devices,” Bell noted. Additionally, Bell highlighted the importance of their metaverse to be accessible through all VR glasses or headsets.
“Employing new technologies can be difficult in a healthy and robust network, but the key to all new technology deployments is having the right IT architecture to support your requirements,” he said. “Similar to designing a house, you will always have problems with the plumbing if your pipes are not sized right. That is extremely true in the case of metaverses, as they will require a significant amount of bandwidth to function properly.”
Regarding data security, 2B3D believes that the blockchain and NFTs functions are the solution to address data privacy and cybersecurity. “Medical records management could easily be executed through blockchain technologies,” Bell assures.
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Blockchain technology is recognized for its security potential. The blockchain is decentralized, and data is not uploaded to a server or stored in a single location. Data in the blockchain also moves through several computers or nodes, is encrypted and validated and is extremely hard to hack because all computers or nodes on the network must be breached simultaneously for the data to be compromised.
Healthcare organizations must also meet legal patient data management standards set by state and federal laws, like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996.
Bell said that telehealth paved the way for the metaverse cybersecurity challenges. “We do not expect any different or significant cybersecurity challenges than those faced by the telehealth industry today,” he said.
Bell does not believe that the healthcare metaverse can replace medical professionals or mental health specialists. “For example, you can easily do group counseling in the metaverse, but you cannot do an X-ray or fix a broken bone,” he explained.
The healthcare metaverse “is a desperately needed augmentation, addition to, and major improvement upon, core services that will still need to be delivered,” said Bell.