Can Healthcare Benefit from the Metaverse?
Written: November 2022
Sometime in the late 1990s when I was Vice President for Internet Technology at IBM, I was invited to visit the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, outside of Chicago. Argonne is a national science and engineering research lab operated for the United States Department of Energy. It is one of the 17 DOE laboratories which comprise a preeminent federal research system, providing the nation with strategic scientific and technological capabilities.
Part of the tour I received included a review of some advanced work Argonne was doing with virtual reality. Before entering the VR lab, I was asked to wear VR goggles and a pair of VR gloves. The gloves used haptic technology, also known as kinesthetic communication or 3D touch. The VR gloves can create an experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the wearer’s hands. It is like the haptic feedback you get from your steering wheel if you cross a highway lane.
After entering the VR lab, I saw a Golden Labrador sitting on his or her haunches with a big tongue hanging out. The executive director conducting the tour asked me to pet the dog. I reached out with my glove and petted the dog on the head. He or she liked it and wagged its tail. Then the executive director asked me to take off my goggles. When I did, I saw an empty room. There was nothing there. The Golden Lab was virtual. The dog was not real. It was a virtual reality experience.
Complimenting VR is AR or augmented reality. The simplest example I can think of is at Amazon. While shopping for a new table lamp for your living room, you can look at your smartphone and see a lamp you have selected. On your phone is your real living room along with a virtual table lamp. This is an augmented reality experience.
For healthcare, I believe more and more mHealth devices and smartphone apps, such as I have written about in Health Attitude: Unraveling and Solving the Complexities of Healthcare will have a positive impact on how healthcare is delivered and the quality of care for patients. VR and AR will play an important role also. Meta (formerly Facebook) is making significant investments in metaverse technology, but they will face competition from all the tech giants and from startups.
One interesting startup I just learned about is Vuzix® Corporation (NASDAQ: VUZI). The company has developed smart glasses and augmented reality (AR) technology and products. They have just announced an innovative trial with its M400 smart glasses. The trial is taking place in Japan with an emergency medical care plan and is a collaborative effort between Juntendo University, Shizuoka Hospital, the Shunto Izu Fire Department, and AVR Japan Co., Ltd.
The objective is to enable the combination of the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and providers at the hospital to improve patient outcomes and lifesaving rates by providing the earliest treatment possible. The idea is to transmit real-time medical information directly from an ambulance to the hospital. From the moment an EMT engages the patient, whatever the EMT sees through the smart glasses, along with whatever the EMT says, is transmitted directly from the smart glasses to providers in the hospital. Medical information such as vital signs and ECG readouts, as well as the patient’s facial expressions and other visual changes in condition, are available to doctors and nurses who are on standby at the hospital.
The trial is designed to measure if the real-time data transmission enables examinations, diagnoses, and preliminary medical treatment decisions can be made by various departments in the hospital before the patient even arrives. In addition, the study designers believe the hospital team can direct the EMTs to provide in-transit emergency treatments such as blood transfusion, intravascular treatment, and various other procedures for which EMTs are trained.
One of my grandsons is a pre-med and a certified EMT. He likes the smart glasses idea and is ready to try it.