Dr. Sahar Hashmi

Healthcare System Reimagined in Metaverse

This weekend, I watched the movie ‘Free Guy’ with my friend and her little brother in his early teens who is a fanatic about video games, the metaverse, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and cryptocurrency. We discussed whether there will be any place for healthcare, clinics, providers, etc., in the metaverse. His opinion was that “it’s an ideal world, and no one gets sick in the fantasy virtual world. Our avatars and creations will all be happy and healthy unless the games are designed around real-world scenarios where the avatars might get sick and would need to go to see a doctor.” Then he said, “Would you be my avatar doctor in my metaverse world?” After an hour of discussion with my friend and her brother, I was left with a couple of realizations:  1) My friend’s little brother was crushing on me; his question was his way of imagining me with him in his metaverse world.  2) My friend (who is also a physician) and her brother were completely clueless about what benefits the metaverse could potentially bring to the healthcare system.

Simply put, there will always be pros and cons to any artificial intelligence (AI) application. The same is true for the metaverse and NFTs as well. In this write-up, I will take the opportunity to discuss three potential benefits of the metaverse in the healthcare world (mental health, virtual visits, and pharmaceuticals) and their potentially harmful effects, while acknowledging there might be plenty of possible applications than those discussed here.

What is a metaverse and NFTs?

First, let us discuss what the metaverse and NFTs are in layman’s terms. As most of us know by now, the word “metaverse” came from the science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson in 1992. It is a digital world that allows humans to take on the forms of avatars and relish their parallel virtual life. In this parallel virtual world, you can dress as you like, even wear the brands (e.g., Versace, Gucci, etc) some of you may like along with their accessories. Recently, Nike acquired a virtual company that creates NFTs wearing Nike shoes. Similarly, you can buy virtual lands/space and build houses and/or build virtual businesses and thus create and collect a variety of assets. Just as in real life, you can make and meet new friends, watch movies in movie theaters, visit art museums, and shop in virtual shopping malls and considerably a whole lot more.

This leads us to read between the lines and have a brief talk about what NFTs are. An NFT is a form of digital art/digital code that can be created, bought, and sold on a blockchain platform like Ethereum. Some of us familiar with NFTs have identified eight areas where entrepreneurs and business industries could apply NFTs. These areas include the gaming apps, the fashion industry, digital identity, marketing, real estate, entertainment, digital art, sports, licenses and certifications, Ethereum name service (ENS) and domains.

There is a little debate on how the metaverse could potentially benefit or harm the world of healthcare. As a female medical doctor with a Ph.D. in healthcare systems management and a master’s in systems design thinking from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a faculty instructor at Harvard University, and an entrepreneur with my own consulting boutique firm (Myriad Consulting LLC) I believe there might be many ways healthcare can be part of the metaverse world. The design and development of metaverse need to be approached cautiously and similarly to how a new medication is discussed when entering the market. The benefits must always be weighed against the harmful effects, be it an AI platform like metaverse or something new in the medicine world.

Metaverse and Potential Mental Health Applications

Bringing mental health management into the metaverse has many potentially promising benefits. It is well known in psychology that when a person is having anxiety or felling stressed, therapists recommend a customized distraction to recover from the state. Currently recommended distraction techniques include meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, and exercising (like taking a walk). Recently, studies showed that playing video games also had an important role in distracting and improving the moods of individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression.

With this coming to light, I believe the metaverse could be that distraction for many individuals experiencing anxiety/PTSD/ depression. They could create their own avatars and have “live-action” cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) as part of their healing, more interactive, and effective integrated strategy. Similarly, they could busy themselves by virtually joining a concert, or talking about what they are feeling to a virtual community of friends, thus there could be a million creative ways that the metaverse could distract an individual.

Aside from the benefits, there are also certain risks associated with bringing mental health management into the metaverse. Foremost, there is a risk of these individuals going into further depression when they come out of this virtual world. They could possibly become lonelier and more disconnected from the realities of life and actual in-person interactions. There is also risk of cyberbullying, addiction to virtual life, leading to health concerns like a sedentary lifestyle with limited activity and an unhealthy living and eating style. Additionally, a technical issue/disruption of the internet could be triggering and disastrous for these vulnerable individuals to suddenly lose their beloved virtual world.

Metaverse and Virtual Visits

As we have observed how video games have become popular with the younger generation in the past few decades, some creative teachers have begun to use gaming apps like Classcraft, Minecraft, Scratch, and many more to engage their students. Just as gaming apps made their way into the schools to help teach students effectively, we might see virtual visits make their way into the metaverse as well. There is a possibility that healthcare organizations will start working on establishing virtual hospitals and clinics, eventually making these part of the metaverse.

Once the current trend toward digital health applications matures, there could eventually be a space in the metaverse world where physicians could converse with patients about their conditions without worrying about which stakeholder is involved. In addition, there would be countless possibilities for innovation if big tech giants partnered with the metaverse to gain better access to patient needs and provide them with a customized care model where all stakeholders are well aligned. However, there is no doubt that the security, safety, and reliability of such applications would present a big risk.

Metaverse and the Pharma Industry

Finally, the pharmaceutical industry could also use the metaverse to advertise certain medications directed towards certain populations in the metaverse. Another way to benefit is by using the genetic makeup of human beings to create genetic twin avatars and conduct medication trials in the metaverse. There is already some interest in creating secure Web3 genomic databanks where customers will be in full control of their own data.

The disadvantages of these are the same for all areas of healthcare applications and we should not ignore the dark reality of the cybersecurity threats to our privacy attached to all current AI applications, be it our iPhone, the cryptocurrency world, or home health monitoring devices.

Metaverse Security Center

I hope that with large amounts of money being invested in the development and marketing of the metaverse, there are also parallel security systems developed by the same billionaires to make sure the benefits outweigh the harmful effects of the metaverse. For example, there needs to be a security system that is continuously monitoring the activities happening in the metaverse, there should be laws and regulations specifically directed for the avatars and businesses vendors in the metaverse just like we have laws and regulations in the real world. There also needs to be a metaverse cyberpolice for checks and balances for the possibility of cyberbullying and likewise, there should be a system that continuously analyzes the data generated within the metaverse to keep improving its functionality. Maybe the potential development of a parallel metaverse security center might give us more confidence that this would be a safe space to use. Since no one really knows what metaverse could entail in the future, one can only hope that a greater good comes out of this metaverse virtual world when it becomes a reality.

Author : Dr. Sahar Hashmi