Written by: Nadine Mukhtar

What is the Metaverse?

 Grasping the parameters of the ‘metaverse’ is an uncertain task given that there is no accepted definition of what constitutes the metaverse. However, a National Law Review article has usefully simplified the metaverse as a ‘shared virtual environment’ that is typically accessible to users through extended reality technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI). James Clarke of BSA Ahmad Bin Hezeem & Associates also points out that a core aspect of the metaverse’s shared virtual environment is the creation of a realistic and immersive in-person interaction beyond a computer screen.

The metaverse facilitates the separation of the digital and physical presence of its users, increasing the accessibility of goods and services that may not have otherwise been available. In the context of healthcare, digitized health services have increasingly been used since the advent of COVID-19 as seen through a rise in remote hospital appointments and digital vaccine certificates for example.However, legal practitioners anticipate that there is greater scope for immersing healthcare services further within the metaverse,which this article will analyse through opportunities related to improving services offered to patients and enhancing the knowledge available to medical practitioners, before assessing some key challenges.

How can the Metaverse be used in healthcare?

Enhancing Patient Diagnosis and Treatment

One method through which the metaverse can improve services offered to patients is via technologies aimed at improving telepresence, which simply refers to the ability to perform functions virtually. Consequently, this may lead to an expansion of therapies administered through telemedicine (defined as the ‘remote diagnosis and treatment of patients’). VR is expected to play a big role in improving telemedicine services with certain advantages being envisioned such as enhancing the connection between the patient and healthcare provider. With the increasing emphasis on personalised medicine, improved VR technologies may offer a good opportunity to personalise the treatment of patients beyond simple telephone or video consultations. VR is also projected to offer ‘virtual therapy suites’ in which a patient can access the expertise of several practitioners, offering another avenue to improve the treatments available to patients.

Another way in which healthcare services can be delivered through the metaverse is via the use of a ‘digital twin,’ which in the context of healthcare, would refer to a digital copy of a patient’s ‘biology or physiology.’ This would be facilitated through AI technologies and is expected to help practitioners offer patients better information on the advantages and disadvantages of certain treatments for example. Consequently, this can also improve the objective of offering personalised medicine, thereby enhancing the efficacy of medical treatment.

Further, the use of blockchain technology to manage patient data, which can be shared across borders can improve the healthcare services offered to patients by permitting medical practitioners around the world to access patient data provided the patient has consented. Managing patient data through the use of blockchain technology may also allow patients to own their own health data, thereby increasing patient autonomy due to greater control over their health records and access to them. Against the background of digitized healthcare, this will certainly be of great advantage to patients, offering both flexibility in terms of treatments and services, while potentially allowing retention of control over sensitive records.

Enhancing medical knowledge

From the perspective of practitioners, Dennis and Matthews of Taylor Wessing point to the merits of extended reality which can enable ‘cloud communication platforms’ to facilitate the sharing of medical education between practitioners.

The common theme between the technologies mentioned thus far is that they aim to improve the quality, accessibility and safety of the treatments and services offered to patients. However, there are numerous challenges that accompany the immersion of healthcare services within the metaverse. These range from data protection and privacy issues, to mirroring the personal connection of in-person healthcare services, and intellectual property rights.

What are the key challenges?

 In the context of telemedicine services, although an enhanced connection between patient and healthcare providers is to be welcomed, the extent to which these technologies can replicate the personal connection between the patient and practitioner is yet to be seen. More importantly, the successful use of new technology in telemedicine will largely depend on the patient’s and practitioner’s ability to adapt to and utilise new technology. Healthcare providers will likely need to train medical practitioners in the use of new extended reality technologies to offer remote diagnosis and treatment services, which may lead to increased costs. Consequently, the advantages of greater accessibility to healthcare through telemedicine service may be hindered at first. Likewise, ensuring that medical practitioners can confidently and safely utilise extended reality technologies is important in order to reduce potential claims of clinical negligence.

 Perhaps the biggest challenge to offering healthcare services through the metaverse is ensuring the protection of patients’ data. Digitizing large volumes of sensitive healthcare data has been argued to increase the risk of cybersecurity attacks. Healthcare providers will therefore need to ensure the implementation of robust data protection and cybersecurity measures.

 Similarly, data stored using blockchain technology cannot be changed once it is stored (referred to as ‘immutable’ data). This may be problematic considering that the UK GDPR requires that personal data must be kept up to date where necessary, alongside requiring errors to be erased and rectified without delay [Article 5(1)(d) UK GDPR].Further, the ability to facilitate international transfers of health data will depend on the permissibility of doing so under local laws and regulations, posing a barrier to the flexibility envisioned through the use of blockchain technology to store and manage patient data.

A final challenge emphasised by legal practitioners regarding healthcare in the metaverse concerns intellectual property rights. For instance, the borderless nature of the metaverse raises the issue of ascertaining the applicable jurisdiction to intellectual property disputes. Likewise, as digital health technologies will likely be patented, this may increase the costs of using new extended reality technology in healthcare due to the need to obtain a license for its use.

Conclusion

The prospect of offering accessible, convenient, and enhanced healthcare services in an over-burdened system is certainly alluring. However, the ability to successfully do so will require both healthcare providers and patients to adapt to largely unchartered territory.

 From the perspective of patients, the biggest barriers to healthcare in the metaverse will likely be the loss of a personal connection and the willingness to replace the traditional role of a healthcare provider with that of technology. Healthcare providers will need to carry the burden of protecting patient data and ensuring that medical practitioners can confidently utilise extended reality technologies to deliver safe healthcare services to patients.