For several months, the metaverse has been at the heart of discussions in the tech world. Even if many think that it was created recently, the metaverse is a concept that has been around for several years now (the term "metaverse" first appeared in 1992, in the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson).

Today, the opportunities offered by the metaverse are gaining a lot of tractions. This recent acceleration can be explained by the conjunction of several major factors, such as the sharp increase in time spent online during Covid-19, the technological transformations which are becoming more mature and accessible to the public, hence the growing interest of companies in this field, especially in the healthcare industry.

Some healthcare stakeholders might see the metaverse as a threat, where our physical interactions will be limited in favor of the virtual world. But it is important to remember that new technologies could also open new possibilities in healthcare: virtual reality has already proven its benefits on many patients. The main idea is not to replace the real world but to bring complementarity in certain fields.

In this article, we will tackle the many answers that the metaverse can bring to challenges faced by the healthcare industry. This includes challenges faced by patients, healthcare professionals (HCPs) & healthcare institutions, also by companies throughout the whole product lifecycle (from drug discovery to commercialization).

First, what exactly is the metaverse?

The metaverse is a digital environment where you can work, collaborate, shop, meet friends and have fun. It’s a shared virtual collective space, resulting from the intersection of several technologies and universes, allowing the convergence between the physical and the digital world. A model that relies on 2D or 3D platforms, making it independent from the device used and accessible from any device – from tablets to virtual reality (VR) headsets1. The metaverse is a persistent model, providing virtually enhanced immersive experiences. If you want to know more about metaverse in general2 you can also read our other BearingPoint article here (Metaverse – it’s here, it’s real, and you have to start now | BearingPoint France).

All these actions are possible thanks to the combination of a large spectrum of existing immersive technologies that promote the growth of the metaverse, such as:

Figure 1: Examples of immersive technologies

Is the metaverse limited to Meta (Facebook)?

In October 2021, the announcement of the launch of Meta® propelled the word "Metaverse" to the forefront of discussions on technology. But beyond this announcement, the metaverse is in fact a very diverse ecosystem with multiple players structuring and feeding it. The metaverse is not one game, one place, or one platform: it’s a network of thousands or millions of virtual ones. It encompasses applications that act as a gateway for the metaverse, such as ”The Sandbox”, “Fortnite”, “Decentraland”, “Ready Player Me”, “Roblox”, etc.

So, does the metaverse really exist today?

The answer is no, but it's in progress, because as mentioned above, at the moment, there are a multitude of metaverses. Now, we talk about the metaverse more as an experience.

The metaverse will become real only once our digital identity (e.g., our avatar) will have a consistent format across the different metaverse experiences, and once we can move seamlessly from one experience to another (just like we do now from website to website or to send SMS between different service providers). Interconnection and interoperability will be the key to create the metaverse.

The metaverse is a trend that affects all sectors and will increasingly be applied to the healthcare industry in the upcoming years, throughout all the product life cycle.

As a matter of fact, pharma companies have been using immersive technologies in their practices for years now. For instance, Roche Italy uses MR to present therapies during roadshows dedicated to pneumo-oncologists: through Microsoft’s HoloLens and from a 3D model of a patient's chest, it was possible to reproduce scan images taken at different moments of the disease, allowing participants to visualize them in sequence and follow their evolution according to the clinical choices made3. Also recently, with the help of VR technologies, Pfizer is creating a sterile injectables factory4, with a “virtual factory” component that will harness digital twin technology to optimize the supply chain as well as train employees in a more efficient way.

But these concepts are now on the verge of a more monumental form of unprecedented disruption, as the metaverse is bringing possibilities that were never previously imagined.  

Figure 2: Examples of opportunities for the pharmaceutical industry through the metaverse

Stronger remote collaboration between healthcare stakeholders

The metaverse could have a major influence on a pharma company’s ability to collaborate across continents to problem-solve and share ideas in a virtual environment. Indeed, hospitals and healthcare spaces already exist in the metaverse and could be purchased by any healthcare stakeholder. One of the first entrants is Aimedis Avalon5, the biggest healthcare space. Its goal is to integrate a wide range of services to connect different healthcare stakeholders around the world.

Pharma companies could also improve customer relationship by relying on this innovation. Some of them have already conducted workshops with HCPs in the metaverse. The benefits of meeting in virtual spaces (total focus and a real sense of personal presence) were discussed and participants were amazed that the technology didn’t get in the way of the content of the conversation.

Hands-on & immersive trainings

Through its immersive technology, simulation-based clinical trainings could be deployed in the metaverse to train HCPs in surgical procedures, the use of medical devices and other primary care services without the fear of harming the patient.

In pharma companies, the metaverse could expand the medium in which training modules can be delivered to employees (researchers, scientists, sales reps…) and customers (HCPs, patients…). On November 2021, MSD entered the metaverse by creating a new educational world in Minecraft for kids called Periodic Odyssey6. Young people can explore, search, and find elements of the periodic table in exchange for in-game rewards. The goal is to get young people interested in science and innovation.

Increased drug development efficiency

The metaverse introduces the possibility of using digital twins to reduce the cost and time required to run reliable clinical trials. A digital twin is a virtual model designed to accurately reflect physical objects or processes. Using a digital twin would allow the trial to be run much more quickly and safely.

The metaverse may also be used as a Digital Therapeutics (DTx) to provide well customized health services as its design could be tailored to fit patient’s needs. In China for example, two clinical trials are ongoing using a metaverse assisted home monitoring model in ophthalmology.

The metaverse in healthcare: take the leap?

The metaverse presents itself today as a potential sustainable solution (as you can access it from anywhere in the world, avoiding polluting travel but this must be balanced against the technological use which has an ecological cost as well), an opportunity for creativity (through addition of new content and customization of parameters) and a chance to increase engagement (thanks to its immersive and exploratory environments).

It may bring extraordinary new opportunities to the healthcare sector. Therefore, to avoid missing the technological shift and embrace this change, it is necessary for pharma companies to implement in this early innovation phase, a test and learn approach to identify which use cases bring them the most value. Starting now is key to learn and be able to accelerate when we are going to transition from Innovation to Industrialization. But they should also consider the different challenges to overcome (such as ethical & data protection issues) to ensure the right adoption of this innovative technology.

Authors:

With the collaboration of Eric Chevallet, BearingPoint Head of Immersive Lab

  • Sources
    1. https://www.bearingpoint.com/en-ie/insights-events/insights/brands-in-the-metaverse-should-i-stay-or-should-i-go/
    2. https://www.bearingpoint.com/fr-fr/publications-evenements/publications/metaverse-its-here-its-real-and-you-have-to-start-now/
    3. https://www.reply.com/en/content/roche-is-using-mixed-reality-for-the-presentation-of-oncological-therapies
    4. https://thedebrief.org/pfizer-is-employing-virtual-reality-to-expand-its-operations-and-boost-output/
    5. https://aimedis.io/metaverse
    6. https://www.msd.com/stories/creating-a-new-world-in-minecraft-for-students-to-explore/
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