— A look into the virtual healthcare era
It's clear that the metaverse -- a new virtual reality sector that reimagines the internet as a 3D experience that users can be a part of -- is being hyped by tech titans as the future of the internet, but what does it mean for the future of healthcare?
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new healthcare consumer conditioned to home delivery of medicines and receiving healthcare online through telehealth visits (including Medicare recipients). In what I'm calling the "medaverse," a new mode of communication in health and the healthcare market will shift how patients interact with providers, receive information and care, and buy products and services.
The early adopters of virtual healthcare products and services will be those who already live in the space today: gamers, coders, and remote workers with high virtual EQ. With the virtual digital economy already in place, player- patients can buy products (similarly to World of Warcraft) or experiences (like in Fortnite) like medicine, wellness services, and mental healthcare.
While playing a game or finishing a virtual business meeting, users might receive a targeted prompt for an eye exam, a prescription refill, a telemedicine session, or a software-based medicine download. Segmenting the market in the virtual world will be easier and will make the go-to market model instantaneous.
Companies who already have a digital chassis (reality capabilities or AI) like telehealth companies, mental health providers, and the emerging field of prescription digital therapeutics will have a first mover advantage. There will likely be friction with processing insurance in the medaverse, so areas in payment innovation like Blockchain and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) allowing users to exchange value on a decentralized network will be important.
Keep in mind we are talking about healthcare -- a field still in the Dark Ages in some ways, with its fax machines and interoperability challenges -- so we should expect risk, bureaucracy, and regulation. Many healthcare leaders remain cautiously optimistic, given current privacy, ethics, and safety concerns, which are likely to be enormous challenges in the medaverse.
Top health officials are ripe for fake avatars, and asymmetrical information risk for users will be high. However, players like DeHealth have already started to lay the foundation for users to transfer their digital identity (avatar) into the new virtual world, including medical data collected through other digital platforms.
Protecting virtual patients from bad care, predatory schemes, false claims, and fraud must be a priority for all in the field. Regulatory oversight regarding areas such as security and patient privacy will be significant. Today, there are countless patients with lower incomes who do not have broadband services or computers in the home. That means we will need to consider a new, more equitable model of patient access, or applications that can work on smartphones.
This new virtual era should aspire to be a force for healthcare good. We have several epidemics ongoing concurrently -- mental health, obesity, and addiction -- where virtually powered options can help address access, cost, and discretion around stigmatized medical conditions. Those in the virtual world tend to create aesthetically improved avatars that represent the best version of themselves -- this may offer a beneficial halo or inspiration to be healthier when the headset comes off in the real world.
Meghan FitzGerald, DrPH, MPH, RN, is an adjunct associate professor with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a private equity investor. She has decades of experience ranging from frontline patient care to serving as an executive at Merck, Pfizer, and Cardinal Health. FitzGerald disclosed that she has no investments in the metaverse, but she did buy several medaverse domains.
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