The advent of the Internet 40 years ago and its ensuing innovation continue to revolutionize society as we know it. The Internet’s inception impacted all aspects of our lives, both personally and professionally, cutting across all market segments. We’re now at the next frontier as we stand on the cusp of moving further into a world built by Web3, which promises to further blend the physical and digital. This will require greater integration, more modern standards and protocols and capabilities that give people more control of their digital selves—their identity and representation, what they own and who has access to the data they create. Web3 could help enable the needed standardization, consistency and interoperability and serve as the foundation from which innovations, including the metaverse, can build.
In fact, artificial intelligence combined with augmented and virtual reality is setting the foundations for the metaverse across almost every industry, including healthcare. And, lately, we’ve been hearing more and more about how the metaverse can help address healthcare’s most significant barriers and challenges.
Metaverse technology is touted as being a driver of disruption in healthcare, able to provide better surgical precision, open new channels or treatment, lower costs and improve patient outcomes. In fact, an August 2022 “Healthcare in the Metaverse” report from Market Research Future predicts that “by 2030 the healthcare metaverse market will grow by 48.3 percent CAGR and be worth $5.37 billion,” and 74 percent of those familiar with the metaverse believe it’s the future, according to a Wunderman Thompson March 2022 report titled “Into the Metaverse and Beyond.”
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '22 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
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Yet, the metaverse is still in its earliest stages, and we’re watching it take shape in real time. While we can expect early adopters, many believe it will be years before these platforms may be broadly utilized and standard practice. Marketers’ opportunity lies in helping define and educate key audiences about the metaverse, sharing why it could be relevant to care delivery and potentially enhancing traditional methods of the patient experience.
The biggest challenge marketers will face with the advent of Web3 enabling new virtual environments like the metaverse to take shape is how, when and where to reach audiences that are becoming more open to—and comfortable with—these types of innovations entering healthcare. The key is educating people about its potential, demonstrating its value and using the core marketing tenets we’ve all come to understand but applied to these new realms in ways that aren’t off-putting but build trust. The question remains: How far ahead of the pendulum are marketers willing to be to meet providers, payers and patients where they are in their care preferences? But, make no mistake, healthcare organizations—specializing in everything from digital therapeutics to virtual care/telehealth to pharma/biotech to diagnostics—need to start planning today to prepare for metaverse innovations like this in the foreseeable future.
Defining Web3 and the metaverse and understanding its possibilities for key healthcare constituents
So, what exactly is Web3 and the metaverse? It’s effectively the next version of the Internet—one that will take advantage of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality and ever-increasing connectivity (for example, 5G networks) to create online environments that are more immersive, experiential and interactive than what we have today.
Provider, payer or patient—tailoring your experiences to connected but different audiences. While the metaverse will impact everyone in healthcare, providers can anticipate opportunities in almost every aspect of their work. Additionally, they can expect top-down and bottom-up pressure to tap the benefits of Web3 from both payers and patients, respectively.
Providers may start interacting with the metaverse from the very earliest stages of their training. Virtual patients can be simulated in the cloud, allowing them to train on difficult cases they would only otherwise experience on a live patient. Doctors in training might find themselves in simulations, getting an up-close view of a surgeon’s procedure enhanced with tactile haptic controls. Or they might experience interactive training modules that enhance learning key concepts where VR can take a learner within the human body and provide a 360° view of a patient’s ailment.
With surgical procedures already making use of advanced tech like robotics, the metaverse is expected to be an effective tool to help perform complicated surgical procedures and enhance patient care. While adoption may be slow initially, since clinical trials must be performed to ultimately evaluate the metaverse as practical, in nearly every facet of surgery, the metaverse provides many opportunities for the future:
- Surgeons will meet in a virtual operating theater to collaborate in surgery with assistance from other consultants and specialists.
- Surgeons will have a display of a patient’s body vital signs, images, medical history and other types of relevant patient data.
- New integrated technology with the metaverse can perform provide rapid test results in real-time for better patient outcomes.
Pharma/biotech and digital therapeutics with Web3. Web3 has the potential to fuel innovation and efficiency in data sharing in ways that will help pharma companies and other vendors improve their commercial insights and optimize their business. Using blockchain technology, Web3 could lead to the democratization of health data.
The metaverse is already showing signs of new opportunities in therapeutic applications. Digital therapeutics are seeing rapid adoption of this form of therapy, where VR and AR tech in the metaverse enables applications such as cognitive therapy, support groups, psychiatric evaluations, rehabilitation and—with the support of haptic sensors—even physical therapy.
Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, expect digital therapeutics that bridge the gap between the physical and digital with real-world results. For example, nurses can meet patients in the metaverse aided with remote monitoring to help perform daily checkups and discussions.
Virtual care in the metaverse. Some aspects of Web3 became part of the patient experience during COVID-19. The adoption of telehealth was greatly expedited and now constitutes a sizeable percentage of patient visits. Providers, healthcare organizations and patients alike are realizing the benefits of virtual healthcare. The metaverse will take things a step further, as patients demand improved access and healthcare organizations look for ways to streamline healthcare delivery. Forbes recently identified three areas that appear to be frontrunners (“Four Practical Ways Healthcare Will Join The Metaverse,” June 13, 2022):
- Mental health: Already, mental health apps are increasing on the Internet. Better personal presence and reliable social connections will combine with data and intelligence to make the metaverse a kinder, gentler place—with therapeutic results.
- Physical therapy: Longer life, chronic disease and the requirement to limit hospitalizations and other institutional remedies have been a great boon to physical therapy and rehabilitative medicine. If physical therapists chip away at obstacles related to cost and access in the metaverse, they will boost the effectiveness and efficiency of PT.
- Weight loss: Losing weight often requires more than a diet or a well-intentioned New Year’s resolution. An integrated approach delivered in the metaverse, combining personal data, social reinforcement, positive psychology and a “sticky” regime of physical exertion, may potentially be just what the doctor orders and a solution that helps patients see results.
A message for today’s marketer
Emerging research indicates that the Web3 and the metaverse will revolutionize healthcare delivery across every aspect and audience and that early adopters will gain an advantage in helping define how it is developed over the next decade. Healthcare marketers should take heed and consider how their current channel, content and overarching PR strategies should evolve to stay relevant in anticipation of the innovations on the horizon.
As you begin to embark on this journey to the center of the metaverse, consider the following:
- Healthcare organizations and their mar/comm teams may need to engage audiences in these new digital environments not too far into the future. Understanding how product placements work inside this landscape, and how to build trust and awareness under new sets of protocols will be critical.
- Organizations can put a “toe in the water” and take a phased approach and focus on preparedness and familiarization with broader trends that stand to impact care. This may include introducing your brand into an existing platform versus building your own virtual environment to start.
- Tap a strategic consulting partner to help understand the implications of this technology and its impact on your organization’s mar/comm team.
- Prepare to build brand awareness to reach audiences in these new channels and across these new frontiers/environments.
- Develop a solid thought leadership initiative to solidify trust and business value through consistent messaging and tone in the metaverse.
Dan Martin is Executive VP of PAN Communications’ Healthcare Practice.