The Metaverse is not an exclusive prerogative of Facebook. There are several companies engaged in the virtual race. In addition to the universe of gaming, which has always been at the forefront of the search for new forms of interactivity, many experiments that integrate the technologies of the Metaverse are underway in the healthcare field.

What does the future have to offer? From the training of doctors to the treatment of patients, we see some examples that demonstrate how Metaverse technologies are already revolutionizing the world of health.

An infinite number of patients to analyze, a deep vision of the organs, even from angles not allowed by a normal surgical field, and the possibility of experimenting and making mistakes in a realistic environment, without harming the patient. These are the main advantages of virtual reality applied to medical training, which allows you to create realistic simulations useful both for learning and for exercises, with the further advantage of allowing procedures to be repeated even in the absence of the teacher.

Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic have launched a “Living Anatomy” program that uses mixed reality to teach anatomy. Based on Microsoft HoloLens technology, the HoloAnatomy suite allows students to “look” inside a 3D representation of the human body, visualizing anatomical structures that are particularly difficult to discern with the naked eye in traditional cadaveric dissection.

Between March and May 2020, 185 students participated remotely in mixed reality classes, viewing in their homes the three-dimensional model that anatomy professor Susanne Wish-Baratz was describing from her office in Cleveland.

Investments in digital health

2021 marked a new record for investments in digital health: in the first half of the year in the United States alone, investments in digital health reached 14.7 billion dollars, more than the amount invested in the whole of 2020.

It is estimated that in 2025 the global digital health market will reach $657 billion. Among the exponentially growing technologies are virtual reality and augmented reality, which today are worth around 1.8 billion dollars globally and, according to estimates, in 2028 they should reach 9.5 billion.

Virtual reality and patient treatment: the first virtual clinic

Numerous experiments use virtual reality in physical rehabilitation treatments, acute and chronic pain therapies, and psychotherapy. Although a systematic review of studies in this area highlights how knowledge in the field of digital therapies is still at a superficial level, it may be useful to analyze some possible applications.

In the United States, XRHealth is proposed as the first completely virtual clinic. This is a project that takes telemedicine to a new level. Each patient receives a viewer and commands to access therapeutic paths in immersive environments. These devices, in addition to guiding the patient, record their performance, which is shared with the therapist.

Telemedicine, virtual reality, and gamification, therefore, become the keys to the treatment of physical injuries, management of chronic pain or stress, and speech therapies.

VR and pain management

Numerous trials have used immersion in virtual environments to relieve acute pain associated with certain procedures.

The first immersive virtual world designed to reduce pain is SnowWorld, based on research conducted since 1996 by Hunter Hoffman and David Patterson at the HITLab of the University of Washington. The objective of the platform was to reduce pain in burn patients during wound care. According to the researchers, the perception of pain has a strong psychological component. Patients were then immersed in a frozen virtual environment where they were engaged in throwing snowballs at targets. This absorbed their attention, leaving fewer resources available to process pain signals.

Numerous studies have been developed following this trend. Among the most recent, is  research presented at the national congress of the European Association of Urology which used virtual reality on patients undergoing cystoscopy. The study found that patients who experienced immersion in a relaxing environment reported lower levels of pain than the control group.

A further evolution is represented by the use of virtual reality in the treatment of chronic pain. Although research on this front is still pioneering, it is interesting to note that in November 2021 the FDA authorized the marketing of EaseVRx, a virtual reality system that uses cognitive behavioral therapy.

Autore: Eugenio Santoro
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