The pace at which the healthcare industry is building its metaverse is staggering. New scientific studies, clinical trials, and virtual reality and augmented reality medical devices continue to emerge at a rapid pace. Applications range from advanced surgeries and procedures to mental health treatment, pain management, training, simulations, remote care, and rehabilitation.
In the US, American Senior Communities (ASC) has partnered with MyndVR and is already bringing therapeutic virtual reality to hundreds of senior communities across the country. In the UK, gameChange VR is used by certain NHS mental health services.
The natural evolution of telemedicine
As TechRepublic recently reported, the metaverse healthcare sector by 2030 will grow at a 48.3% CAGR and be worth $5.37 billion.
Brenda Kay Wiederhold of the Virtual Reality Medical Center explains in the article Metaverse Games: Game Changer for Healthcare? how innovation is disrupting healthcare as the natural evolution of telemedicine, heavily inspired by the gaming industry.
TechRepublic spoke with healthcare experts from Penumbra, a healthcare company that offers innovative technology products, and experts from the REAL Immersive System, creators of a therapeutic metaverse device.
“When we combine the expertise of award-winning game designers with the knowledge of rehabilitation providers like occupational and physical therapists, we can deliver these science-backed immersive experiences that are both physically and mentally stimulating,” Gita Barry, General Manager, Immersive Healthcare in Penumbra told TechRepublic.
Chronic neck and back pain, cognitive decline, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, stroke rehabilitation, therapy and wellness are some of the treatments the metaverse experience can provide. The company’s healthcare metaverse games are specifically designed for upper and core body strengthening, cognitive and motor skills, physical and cognitive rehabilitation, and more. Penumbra received initial clearance from the FDA in 2019.
A wide range of scientific studies support the benefits of the metaverse for healthcare practices. For example, a study on VR rehabilitation for Parkinson’s found that these new technologies are more effective in determining overall improvement than conventional rehabilitation programs.
“Virtual reality is an extraordinary tool when harnessed in the right way, as it truly harnesses the principles of neuroplasticity, intrinsically motivating patients to work harder and longer in rehab, with the goal of accelerating recovery from patients,” Barry said.
Steven Chen, senior director of product management for REAL Immersive, told TechRepublic that patients face rehab challenges such as adherence to care plans, follow-up and engagement. Chen explained that rehabilitation for patients can be painful, difficult to perform, boring and inconvenient.
“Reimagining rehab as an experience that presents the right level of physical, mental and cognitive challenge, while keeping people engaged and entertained means patients are more likely to stick with a program, enjoy participating in it and seek out those experiences. proactively,” Chen said.
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What Gaming Pros Bring to the Table
Healthcare organizations are also building on what they recently learned to conquer: remote technologies. According to Forbes, prior to 2020, only 43% of health care facilities provided remote treatment. Today, that number reaches almost 95%. And while not all health apps in the metaverse are designed for remote care, the industry now has experience in rapidly adopting new technologies.
TechRepublic asked Chen what skills gaming professionals bring to building the healthcare metaverse. He said it’s about creating immersive experiences. “The more immersive an experience is, the more engaging, entertaining and effective it can be from a therapeutic and clinical standpoint,” Chen explained.
From their professional experience to design skills and understanding of what works best to maximize immersion, gaming professionals bring a lot to the table. “As a game designer, you need to understand the technical limitations of the hardware platforms and software tools we use to create those experiences, but those technical skills are only useful if you also have the necessary experience and design skills,” Chen said. .
The technology that creates virtual reality experiences in healthcare
Penumbra and the Real System VR team had to design metaverse experiences that specifically addressed physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language rehabilitation, and general mental wellness.
“For example, when a physical therapist works with a patient to improve their range of motion, they perform specific physical movements,” Chen explained. This work requires a strong understanding of the underlying clinical principles used in rehabilitation and translating them into virtual reality experiences.
Metaverse healthcare solutions aren’t just VR headsets; Patients’ arms, legs, upper body and core are “equipped” with VR sensors and tracking technology. “In VR, we can recontextualize those moves as an immersive experience and goal-oriented gamification that encourages people to do more and enjoy doing it,” adds Chen.
While virtual reality therapy builds on existing treatments and therapies, it is also not limited by various real-world limitations. “Instead of a therapy clinic, we can place you on a tropical island or in your favorite city, underwater or in space,” Chen said. Immersion distracts the patient from pain and fatigue and improves the quality of patient outcomes.
Industry-leading technology in the healthcare metaverse is unlike the AR/VR technology used by everyday consumers. “The healthcare environment has different requirements than commercial entertainment products, so I would recommend products designed specifically for a healthcare use case; without that, he’s just messing around,” Chen said.
VR healthcare accessibility is not just about the hardware, but about ensuring that the software, virtual environments and experiences are easy to use and accessible to people who have never tried VR or AR before. Designers therefore have guidance built into experiences. On the other hand, to adapt to effective rehabilitations or treatments, therapists can customize the simulations according to the demands of the patient.
“Therapists need the ability to change the difficulty and stimulation levels of an experience on the fly, or change game settings to add new elements to the experience if they feel it is necessary for that patient,” says Chen.
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The benefits of the metaverse for patients
Motivating patients is one of the most critical factors influencing the speed and extent of their recovery. Barry explained that VR really captures a patient’s imagination and motivates them throughout their rehab course, “intrinsically motivating them to stick with their exercises and helping them progress faster.”
Metaverse virtual reality experiences can distract patients from mental roadblocks and discomfort and allow them to focus on the task at hand, which may be “moving a virtual bird from one branch to another or playing a game of virtual pinball.”
“We’ve heard from providers using our VR for rehabilitation that they’ve seen patients move in ways they didn’t think possible and even, in some cases, progress faster than they expected, and that’s the ultimate goal: to help patients.” patients get the most out of their rehab experience as quickly as possible,” said Barry.
For many, a healthcare metaverse is not unusual, as the pandemic accelerated the adoption of telemedicine and patients demanded new technology options for care. “What this technology has the potential to do is allow a single therapist to effectively treat more patients or patients who have difficulty accessing services,” Chen said. VR experiences are also being touted as solutions to issues plaguing the industry, such as burnout of healthcare professionals, increased demand and long wait times, and overworked call centers.
“Virtual reality offers therapists a new tool to increase engagement and satisfaction with the rehab experience, which often leads to better real-world outcomes,” Barry said.