Collage of metaverse healthcare.
Image: Penumbra

The pace at which the healthcare industry is building its metaverse is overwhelming. New scientific studies, clinical trials and medical VR and AR devices continue to emerge at a fast pace. The applications range from advanced surgeries and procedures to mental health treatment, pain management, training, simulations, remote care and rehabilitation.

In the U.S., the American Senior Communities (ASC) partnered with MyndVR and is already providing therapeutic virtual reality for hundreds of senior citizens’ communities across the country. In the U.K., gameChange VR is used in selected NHS mental health services.

The natural evolution of telemedicine

As TechRepublic recently reported, the metaverse healthcare sector by 2030 will grow by 48.3% CAGR and be worth $5.37 billion.

Brenda Kay Wiederhold of Virtual Reality Medical Center explains in the paper Metaverse Games: Game Changer for Healthcare? how the innovation is storming into healthcare as the natural evolution from telemedicine, heavily inspired by the gaming industry.

TechRepublic spoke to healthcare experts from Penumbra—a healthcare company providing novel technology products—and to experts of REAL Immersive System, creators of a therapeutic metaverse device.

“When we pair the expertise of award-winning game designers with the knowledge of rehabilitation providers like occupational and physical therapists, we’re able to deliver these science-backed immersive experiences that are both physically and mentally stimulating,” Gita Barry, general manager of immersive healthcare at Penumbra told TechRepublic.

Chronic neck and back pain, cognitive impairment, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, stroke rehabilitation, therapeutic and wellness, are some of the treatments metaverse experience can provide. The company’s healthcare metaverse games are specifically designed to strengthen the upper and core body, cognitive and motor skills, physical and cognitive rehabilitation and more. Penumbra was granted initial FDA clearance in 2019.

A wide range of scientific studies support the benefits of 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.

“VR is an extraordinary tool when harnessed the right way, as it really leverages the principles of neuroplasticity, intrinsically motivating patients to work harder and longer in rehab, with the goal of ultimately accelerating patient recoveries,” Barry said.

Steven Chen, senior director of product management for REAL Immersive, told TechRepublic that patients face rehabilitation challenges such as adherence to care plans, monitoring and engagement. Chen explained that rehab for patients can be painful, difficult to do, 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 that patients are more likely to stick to a program, enjoy participating in it and will proactively seek those experiences,” Chen said.

SEE: Artificial Intelligence Ethics Policy (TechRepublic Premium)

What gaming professionals bring to the table

Healthcare organizations are also building on what they have recently learned to conquer: remote technologies. According to Forbes, before 2020, just 43% of healthcare facilities provided remote treatment. Today, that number reaches almost 95%. And while not all metaverse healthcare applications are designed for remote care, the sector is now experienced in the rapid adoption of new technologies.

TechRepublic asked Chen what skills gaming professionals bring to the healthcare metaverse construction. He said it’s all about creating immersive experiences. “The more immersive an experience is, the more engaging, entertaining, and effective from a therapeutic and clinical standpoint it can be,” Chen explained.

From their professional experience to design skills and understanding of what works best to maximize the sense of immersion, gaming pros bring a lot to the table. “As a game designer, you have to understand the technical constraints of the hardware platforms and the software tools we use to build those experiences but those technical skills are only useful if you also have the experience and design skills to go with them,” Chen said.

The technology building healthcare VR experiences

Penumbra and the Real System VR team had to design metaverse experiences that specifically addressed physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language rehabilitation and general mental well-being.

“For example, when a physical therapist works with a patient to improve their range of motion, they perform specific physical motions,” Chen explained. This work demands a solid understanding of the underlying clinical principles used in rehab and translating them into VR experiences.

The metaverse solutions for healthcare are not just VR headsets; patients’ arms, legs, upper body and core, are “rigged” with VR sensors and tracking technology. “In VR, we can recontextualize those motions as an immersive experience and layer-in goal-oriented gamification that encourages people to do more and enjoy doing it,” Chen adds.

While virtual reality therapy builds on existing treatments and therapies, it is also unconstrained by several real-world limitations. “Instead of a therapy clinic, we can put you on a tropical island, or your favorite city, underwater or in space,” Chen said. Immersion distracts the patient from pain and fatigue and improves the quality of a patient’s outcomes.

The technology leading the way in the healthcare metaverse sector is unlike the AR/VR tech used by everyday consumers. “The healthcare environment has different requirements than commercial entertainment products, so I would recommend products that are designed specifically for a healthcare use-case—without that, you’re just playing games,” Chen said.

Accessibility in VR healthcare is not just about the hardware but about ensuring that the software, virtual environments and experiences are user-friendly and accessible to people who have never tried VR or AR before. Designers, therefore, have guidance built into the experiences. On the other hand, to adapt to effective rehabilitation or treatments, the simulations can be customized by therapists according to the patient’s demands.

“Therapists need the ability to change the difficulty and stimulation levels of an experience on the fly, or change the game settings to add new elements to the experience if they feel they need to for that patient,” Chen says.

SEE: Metaverse cheat sheet: Everything you need to know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The metaverse benefits for patients

Motivating patients is one of the most critical factors influencing the speed and extent of their recovery. Barry explained that VR truly captures a patient’s imagination and motivates them throughout their course of rehab, “intrinsically motivating them to stick to their exercises and helping them progress faster.”

Metaverse virtual reality experiences can distract the patients from the mental hurdles 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 virtual pinball game”.

“We’ve heard from providers using our VR for rehab that they’ve seen patients move in ways they didn’t think possible and even, in some cases, progress faster than they’ve expected, and that’s the ultimate goal—to help patients get the most out of their rehab experience as fast as possible,” Barry said.

For many, a healthcare metaverse is not an unusual sight 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 to allow a single therapist to effectively treat more patients, or patients who have challenges accessing services,” Chen said. VR experiences also present themselves as solutions to problems that affect the sector like burnout of healthcare professionals, increased demand and long waiting times, and overworked care centers.

“VR offers therapists a new tool to increase engagement and satisfaction with the rehab experience, which often leads to better outcomes in the real world,” Barry said.

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