Promise and peril in the health care metaverse

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Future Pulse won’t publish Wednesday, Aug. 31. We’ll be back in your inboxes Wednesday, Sept. 7.

Some 400 health care patents have a connection to the metaverse, the immersive realm that blends virtual and physical reality, according to IFI Claims, a Connecticut company that tracks intellectual property.

Companies with patents include IBM, Microsoft, Medtronic, Siemens, and Chinese telehealth firm Ping An. The prospects for improving health care via the metaverse, from medical training to mental health therapy, are promising, but the field is still nascent. While the FDA focuses on mitigating harm to patients, experts say there are concerns about data privacy.

Enric Escorsa O’Callaghan, CEO of IALE Tecnología, a Spanish company that evaluates technologies for companies, said the metaverse’s place in health care is still “a bit vague.” It includes augmented reality that enhances a real-world scene with virtual features, virtual reality that puts a person inside a computer-generated environment, social technologies that facilitate human interactions and sensors that bring real life online.

People can access the metaverse in a variety of ways: virtual reality headsets, cellphones, computers and even voice-activated devices.

One of the best-use cases for the metaverse in health care is training. Magic Leap, which makes headsets for viewing three-dimensional MRI and CT scans before surgery, announced a partnership with four health tech companies this year. Med schools are now using virtual cadavers, in addition to physical versions, to teach students anatomy.

Already, training is being put into practice. Johns Hopkins surgeons used augmented reality headsets last year to perform two complex back surgeries.

Home health is part of the metaverse. Vinya Intelligence, which uses sensors and cameras to track the health of older adults at home, has applied for a patent for technology that detects patient decline.

Mental health treatment is perhaps the most well-documented use of virtual reality. A fair amount of research shows that virtual reality can help patients who have anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. The technology allows patients to confront or work through triggers in a simulated environment.

Aaron Gani, CEO of BehaVR, a virtual reality mental health company, said the social aspects of the metaverse are intriguing: “What if it was you and the VR program and I connected you to a community of others who are going through similar things or have gone through similar things?”

Regulation: The FDA has a framework for vetting virtual reality, augmented reality, digital therapeutics and artificial intelligence in medicine.

The bigger problem may be outside the FDA’s jurisdiction.

Gani said that companies will be able to collect even more data about a person in the metaverse than they do currently. While the federal law known as HIPAA protects patient data, it doesn’t extend far beyond the doctor’s office. How companies do or don’t protect data that’s not covered will be something to watch, he said.

Welcome back to Future Pulse, where we explore the convergence of health care and technology. On the heels of its One Medical buy, Amazon is among the bidders for Signify Health, an analytics company that helps coordinate at-home care. Why do you think Amazon wants Signify? Send us your thoughts.

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