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Metaverse Medicine and the Doctor, Patient Avatars Ahead

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August 12, 2022 — In what some are calling the next iteration of the Internet, the metaverse is an unfamiliar digital world where you can be an avatar, navigating through computer-generated spaces and interacting with others in real time. In this space, the limitations of our physical, brick world and travel habits disappear. And there are new opportunities and challenges.

At the Medical University of Connecticut in Farmington, medical students got their first taste of what life could be like in a place as futuristic as this, when residents first received virtual reality headsets.

At a historic moment, orthopedic surgeries have been largely put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Olga Solovieva, MD, Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at UConn Health.

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Residents now put on glasses and see their avatars (digital images of themselves) in a virtual operating room with a table, instruments and a virtual patient. They manipulate instruments with controllers and feel resistance when sawing or drilling through bone, and feel pressure drop when they cut through bone completely.

In virtual reality, they can also remove virtual layers of skin and muscle to better see the bone underneath. Learning modules provide feedback on how well students perform procedures and track their progress.

Headset ready

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“Classically, it has always been the principle of “see, do, teach,” the mentality: first observe, then practice, and then teach others,” says Solovieva. Residents can now repeatedly practice on their own in a safe environment with professional feedback.

According to Solovieva, this also allows the practice of rare operations that may not be performed on real patients.

Such training in digital environments such as the metaverse is becoming more prevalent in other U.S. surgery residency programs, she says.

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Some aspects of the metaverse – a term that’s just starting to pop up in conversation – are already here, like VR learning, telemedicine, and 3D printing.

Facebook’s announcement last year that it would be rebranded as Meta sparked a wave of curiosity about the concept. Definitions vary, but at its core, a metaverse is a space where virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (where unrelated devices communicate with each other), quantum computing, and a range of other technologies come together to connect the physical and digital worlds. .

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Meta-What?

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A report by industry trend analyst Gartner predicts that by 2026, 25% of the world’s people will spend at least an hour a day in the metaverse, whether it be for work, shopping, education, or entertainment.

And thanks to wearable technology, people today can monitor their vital signs and update their doctor’s data in real time. Barry Issenberg, MD, director of the University of Miami’s Gordon Center for Simulation and Innovation in Medical Education, says electronic medical records in the metaverse are likely to become living documents, updated by sensors in clothing or furniture, phone apps, or wearable devices.

Instead of people coming into the doctor’s office to examine and interpret lab values, doctors will already have most of the picture in the uploaded data.

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This, he says, will help address a common complaint that with electronic health records, doctor visits have become stressful as doctors are distracted by entering information into templates.

Physicians can also set parameters for anomalies so that if a patient’s blood pressure becomes too high or gait disturbances are detected, the physician is notified, allowing for more proactive preventive care.

Since people will also receive real-time information, Issenberg said, they will be able to self-medicate more.

Virtual Instruments

In Miami, doctors work with emergency services in the community using virtual tools. They can show the student with a stethoscope, for example, the anatomy located under the chest, so that the respondents do not have to imagine how the heart beats – they can see it on the screen, hearing the sounds.

At the Bascom-Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, a doctor has developed personal glasses that can measure patients’ visual response, Issenberg said. The glasses are sent to patients with vision problems so that doctors can conduct examinations without coming to the center.

The main stumbling block to the creation of the metaverse is a problem that also hinders progress in the use of electronic medical records. Health systems use different technologies that often do not interact with each other.

The metaverse will find a more seamless connection in large autonomous systems like the Veterans Administration, Kaiser Permanente and the Mayo Clinic, Issenberg said.

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According to Nimita Limaye, Ph.D., research vice president of research and development strategy for the life sciences at International Data Corp. headquartered in Needham, Massachusetts, clinical trial recruitment, patient engagement, and monitoring may also look different in the metaverse.

Digital access to clinical trials

Many of the challenges associated with clinical trials include high patient burden, which can lead to people not following directions or dropping out of trials. Questionnaires can be long and difficult to complete.

Virtual assistants can issue medication reminders, ask patients daily how they are feeling, read questions to people, and record responses for researchers.

“I don’t think it’s very far,” Limaye says, noting that voice commands are much more convenient than downloading and using apps, especially for older people with low vision.

Amazon Web Services is already working with its voice and chatbot solutions, Alexa, and Amazon Lex to improve participation in clinical trials, reduce dropout rates, and improve the quality of recorded data.

One day, Limaye says, people with a particular disease or condition will be able to ask a virtual assistant like Alexa what clinical trials are available for them.

Exclusion and inclusion criteria can be built into the technology, and the virtual assistant can respond with a list of trials and instructions on how to register.

COVID-19, Limaye said, has already changed clinical trials and made it more common for people to participate from home through telemedicine, home nursing, wearables, and direct delivery of drugs and devices to the patient.

“The life sciences industry has seen evidence that technologies can work with clinical trials,” she says.

As technology advances, Limaye adds, equal access will be critical.

She notes that while few can afford a sophisticated VR headset, other solutions may be more affordable.

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