3 Healthcare Challenges the “Med-averse” Could Address

by Corinna Lathan, PhD and Daniel Kraft, MD, founder of NextMed Health.

We’ve heard a lot about technologies converging to form one, or likely multiple, versions of a metaverse. [1] These technologies include web 3.0—the internet made more secure and distributed by blockchain; augmented, virtual, and mixed reality (AR/VR/XR)—which blend our physical and digital realities; and artificial intelligence—computers programmed to have human-like processing capabilities.

One version of a metaverse will likely enable healthcare across the continuum of prevention, diagnostics, therapy, and education. We call this version of the metaverse the “med-averse” or “medi-verse.” A recent Accenture report [2] suggested these technologies building the metaverse will impact healthcare by enabling capabilities like:

  • Telepresence—delivering care at a distance
  • Virtual training and education—making medical training more accessible and immersive
  • Therapy— using AR/VR/XR to treat pain, in physical therapy, and more [3]
  • Digital twinning—simulating individuals and communities to advance medical initiatives and enabling highly personalized healthcare journeys for wellness and prevention, diagnostics, and more precise and effective therapies

What we don’t hear enough about are the healthcare challenges that could be addressed by these technologies and capabilities. The following is evidence that we might be able to leverage the med-averse potential to attack some great challenges, such as chronic disease, the mental health crisis, and health disparities.

Preventing chronic diseases

Chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, are pervasive in the United States, and the leading causes of death and chronic diseases disproportionately affect persons in rural areas and in lower socioeconomic brackets. [4]

A recent paper by Skalidis et al [5] talks about the “cardioverse,” painting a picture of the future of cardiovascular medicine that leverages the immersive metaverse to help motivate exercise, monitor heart health, and provide access to care. The potential for inspiring lifestyle changes is particularly profound, as we know that lifestyle factors are key to mitigating the severity of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. In fact, the book Undo It by Anne and Dean Ornish was inspired by a randomized clinical trial that showed the effects of coronary artery disease could be reversed with a combination of diet, exercise, stress reduction, and social support. [6]

We all know that it’s easier said than done to eat better, exercise more, reduce stress, and love more. But technology can help. Just like we use wearable activity trackers, food subscription services, and medication and dating apps, the med-averse will be a collection of technologies we can leverage to facilitate personalized lifestyle changes.

Addressing the mental health crisis

We weren’t doing so well in addressing behavioral and mental health before the pandemic and the isolation and stress of COVID exacerbated the problem, which the department of health and human services, among others, is calling a crisis. [7]

Decades of research using immersive VR has helped patients deal with stress which could and should be leveraged as we build the med-averse. The last two years of the Annual Review of CyberTherapy and Telemedicine [8] have focused on applications of the metaverse to conditions such as chronic pain, depression, eating disorders, alcohol use disorder, emotion regulation, trauma, and bereavement.

VR platforms are leveraging the continued rise in popularity of games and becoming part of the mental health solution. [9] For example, DeepWell Therapeutics has created video games for mental health that treat mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. TRIPP has created the “Mindful Metaverse” and has been shown to enhance well-being through VR-enabled guided mindfulness and meditation. [10]

Targeting health disparities

Health disparities exist partly as a function of deep-seated biases based on education, economics, race, age, gender, and more. Working to address health disparities will take a systemic change on many levels. Technology, in general, should be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and the med-averse specifically could reach many underserved populations. For example, our earlier example of the “cardioverse” could engage a broader spectrum of at-risk individuals to help prevent heart disease through access to care and motivating healthy habits.

Another aspect of health disparities is the lack of inclusion in clinical trials and the pervasive “one size fits all” approach to medical treatment. The med-averse could be used to conduct clinical trials in a virtual environment. This could save time and money, as well as reduce risks associated with traditional clinical trials. It could also make it easier for patients in underrepresented populations to participate in clinical trials.

Finally, providing access to care, using the med-averse for more inclusive clinical trials, and individualized treatment is all theoretical until someone puts their money where their mouth is. Recent research has shown the effectiveness of immersive VR in treating chronic pain. [11] That’s actually not surprising to most of us in health tech fields. What is surprising and more impactful is that the Veteran’s Administration (VA) is going to pay for it. [12] This is a promising first step towards a metaverse-enabled medi-verse that helps address significant healthcare challenges.

This article was co-authored by Daniel Kraft, MD. Dr. Kraft is a Stanford and Harvard-trained physician-scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, and innovator and is founder of NextMed Health.