Healthcare in the Metaverse: All the Possibilities

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the way we live. Luckily, telehealth has been catching up, bringing healthcare into our homes. 

It’s taken a decade for virtual reality (VR) to reach maturity, but it’s now in a place where virtual environments are authentic and immersive enough to be used therapeutically – and claim similar if not higher efficacy as in vivo therapy.

And in another decade, who knows? By then the metaverse may have changed our lives once more, or at least revolutionised how we access healthcare.

What is the metaverse?

The metaverse refers to the concept of an immersive, interactive, seamless 3D virtual universe. The term was first used in sci-fi novels, but Mark Zuckerberg created a buzz around it last year when announced that his company, Meta, would be dedicating itself to the development of the metaverse.

Immersive 3D virtual environments already exist – some say the game Second Life was the first example of a metaverse.

Twenty years later, advancements in VR, augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), and hyperconnectivity with 5G networks mean that the metaverse is ready to take off. In the next few years it’s expected to go beyond gaming, with virtual worlds expanding into e-commerce, education, and healthcare sectors. Once they’re all connected, it will truly be the metaverse.

Greater accessibility and possibilities within healthcare

Say goodbye to Zoom calls. In the metaverse, you can have immersive 3D experiences with your patients. You’ll be represented by your avatar, which will hopefully come equipped with a spectacular wardrobe. Patients will be able to plug in at home, choose their avatar, stroll into your office and settle into your armchair, or maybe they’d prefer to lie down on your couch. Your office could be decorated any way you like, at (virtually) no cost to you. Any resources that could help you do your job – whether it’s a book, a meditation visualisation, or a skydiving simulation – would be available to you at your fingertips.

Virtual Reality and the metaverse could make mental health care more accessible in a few ways. Not all therapies can be carried out through video call, and VR offers an ever expanding number of programs, environments, and use cases for healthcare. Patients will no longer have to drive an hour (or longer) to get to appointments. People with limited mobility, people recovering from stroke, or those in chronic pain – who are already being helped by VR – will also benefit.

Anxiety, depression, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and addiction are also barriers to care. People who are suffering mentally may have walls up, or negative self-talk that keeps them down. Lethargy, anxiety, mood swings, feelings of shame, fear of facing one’s problems, and simple inattention can all deter a person from booking their first appointment or showing up to the next one.

The depersonalised environment within VR universes may even help some patients feel more comfortable. A little distance from the real can sometimes make it easier to talk to others about difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences. 

Training and continuing education in the Metaverse

In the metaverse, therapists, therapists-in-training, and interns alike could hone their skills by practising on AI avatars with complex mental health profiles going through challenging situations. You may also use VR to attend virtual seminars, talks, and conferences. Interns, trainees, and the newly minted may be able to find gigs there, too.

VR could also give rise to new ways of knowing, to more deeply understand what others are going through. For example, have you ever wondered what it’s like to be disassociated? A proposed simulation would create an experience of dissociation that people could sort of “try on.” Mental and physical immersion into mental states that may be foreign for us could help us be more empathetic, or give us extra insight into what patients might need.

Neurofeedback in the Metaverse

Neurofeedback is a biofeedback therapy used to treat mental disorders including anxiety, depression, insomnia, ADHD, PTSD, and pain. Disorders of the mind can really scramble our thinking. Neurofeedback restores our brain health by tinkering with brain wave oscillations, and training our minds to develop new, healthier patterns. 

Neurofeedback has been successful in treating chronic PTSD cases where other methods have failed. After 24 neurofeedback sessions, 73% of chronic PTSD patients in this study were in remission.  The patients also improved in “measures of affect regulation, identity impairment, abandonment concerns, and tension reduction activities.” Neurofeedback has already been successfully paired with VR to treat mental health conditions. We’ll definitely be seeing more of it in the metaverse.

Wellness and Mental Health in the Metaverse

Yoga studios and meditation spaces are already finding homes in the metaverse. No matter who you are, yoga is a wonderful way to destress – oxygenating our bodies and clearing our minds.

What’s less known is that yoga can heal PTSD.

After taking a one-hour per week trauma-sensitive yoga class for 10 weeks, 52% of women who had previously been diagnosed with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD no longer met the criteria for the disorder.