The term “metaverse” — which we’re hearing more and more these days — is still a bit esoteric to the general public. People often understand it only as a vague reference to a fantasy world beyond our reality.
But the metaverse doesn’t have to seem so sci-fi. It actually holds promising potential to transform healthcare delivery for the better, according to a keynote talk delivered by Mona Flores, Nvidia’s global head of medical AI, at MedCity’s Invest Digital Health conference in Dallas on Wednesday.
Flores defined the metaverse as an immersive network of connected virtual worlds, calling it the “3D evolution of the Internet.” At Nvidia, she helped build Omniverse, the company’s platform for building and operating metaverse applications.
“[The metaverse] will extend the web pages of the Internet today to 3D spaces and worlds,” Flores said. “And just like the Internet, it is going to touch every industry out there, including healthcare.”
The metaverse is poised to disrupt various aspects of healthcare — Flores identified workforce training, patient experience, healthcare facilities and medical manufacturing as the main areas to be excited about.
Take workforce training for example. In the metaverse, medical students can practice office visits and surgeries hundreds of times before they ever perform these encounters with real-life patients.
“No pilot ever flies a plane before practicing on simulators; no surgeon should either,” Flores, who is a former cardiac surgeon, said.
In terms of patient experience, metaverse technologies can take hospital patients out of drab settings and transport them to pretty much any environment they choose. The metaverse also has the potential to increase patients’ access to caregivers, perhaps one day allowing them to interface with on-demand avatars of physicians, who answer questions and give medical advice based on a font of real-world knowledge and data.
Entering the metaverse will can help healthcare workers and patients feel more comfortable, according to Flores. For instance, if a health system is building a new care wing, it can virtually welcome staff members to the site and let them orient themselves to what the space will look like long before construction is completed. Virtual reality can also allow patients and their families to walk around a hospital and get to know the environment before they arrive for their stay. This can have a huge impact on wayfinding, a big challenge when patients arrive at a hospital campus already nervous about a condition they have.
Metaverse technologies can similarly help healthcare manufacturers, Flores pointed out. She said pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers can digitally replicate their brick-and-mortar facilities in the virtual world.
“It’s a virtual, complete digital copy of the factory or the lab — including all of its assembly lines, machines and tools,” she said. “We can now use simulation to plan the design of the rooms and optimize the route within this factory, from the width of the corridor to the size of the machines. You can also virtually train employees in this factory before you even open the doors for the operations.”
Though the picture Flores paints is captivating, her presentation was met by a healthy skepticism. Two audience members expressed a key concern about the impact on workers given that more and more, technology is completing tasks better than humans.
In order to truly leverage the metaverse, they said it may seem like the U.S. healthcare workforce would need to learn to maneuver these technologies and gain a deep understanding of AI, data science and engineering. If that’s the case, it doesn’t look like the country as a whole is on track to educate its people in the way that is required in the future. This could lead to a massive group of unemployed, angry people. Flores disagreed.
Though metaverse technologies may replace a small percentage of healthcare workers, she thinks these employees’ healthcare expertise can be leveraged to fit new roles and fill other healthcare positions, which could be a major positive given the ongoing healthcare employment dearth.
Flores also doesn’t believe that engaging in the metaverse will require all healthcare employees to have a firm grasp of complicated technology. She pointed to the example of Cincinnati Children’s, who trained its staff to work in its new neonatal intensive care unit months before they ever stepped into the facility.
“The nurses were able to do this without any problem,” Flores said. “They didn’t know any AI. All they had to do was what they’ve always done — nothing new except putting a headset on.”
Another concern people have regarding the metaverse is that it feels wrong to focus on this shiny new thing when the country is still so far away from mastering the basics of healthcare — keeping people healthy and ensuring widespread access to care. But Flores thinks it’s important to remember that the metaverse won’t integrate itself into healthcare overnight. It’s a long journey that will take decades.
“We need to capture more data and bring it together so that we know the learnings from every doctor, researcher and engineer out there,” she said. “We will be able eventually to understand more about biology and be able to treat a patient specifically for their disease and their genetic makeup and their environmental exposures and what have you. We’re not there yet, but we will get there — maybe not in my lifetime.”
Photo: metamorworks, Getty Images