Is the metaverse the new frontier in medicine?

By Jules Murtha
Published January 24, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • The metaverse is a parallel digital reality comprised of of virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality technologies.

  • This space has transformative potential for how we train clinicians, and for how they work in conventional reality.

  • With the rise of this new technology come concerns about security, applicability, and the clinician-patient relationship.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, telehealth went mainstream. Remote care proved user-friendly and safe during a time when face-to-face contact wasn’t.

Telehealth, however, represents only a small fraction of the budding relationship between virtual technology and healthcare. In fact, virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), augmented reality (AR) and other technologies are merging to create the metaverse—and medicine is changing as a result.

What is the metaverse?

The metaverse, defined

The metaverse is an emergent amalgamation of virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), and augmented reality (AR) that may one day exist in parallel to conventional reality. Examples include a VR system in which patients see providers, an MR system that mental health providers incorporate into therapy, or an AR system that surgeons use to guide procedures in real life. 

Most may hear “meta” and think of Mark Zuckerberg. On Oct. 28th, 2021, Zuckerberg announced Facebook would become Meta, another social technological entity altogether.

The subsequent “metaverse,” of which Meta aspires to be a part, is a visual representation of reality made possible by virtual reality software, according to a article. Not quite VR, not quite AR, the metaverse is a culmination of technology that offers a reality adjacent to actual reality. Communications, retail, work stations, entertainment, and healthcare make up some of the core features of the synthesized experience.

Telehealth primed doctors and patients for metahealth. Once it’s developed, patients will navigate the metahealth ecosystem with personalized avatars to receive proper care, including diagnosis and treatment. 

Data interconnectivity, the use of digital twins, simplified providers, and payment will come together to create a holistic healthcare experience for digital patients in the metaverse.

Related: Helpful or hype? Wearable tech makes its way into clinical practice

Real-world benefits

While the metaverse needs at least another decade of work before humans have access to its shops, games, and travel and healthcare benefits, medical companies are using the developing technology now to explore its potential.

For example, Meta Platforms—formerly known as facebook—acquired the VR company Oculus for $2 billion in 2014. Since the acquisition, Meta has partnered with the WHO to design an MR mobile app to train healthcare workers across the globe on the COVID-19 response.

The app includes one module in which AR technology simulates and teaches users how to properly apply and remove PPE. It is currently available in seven languages, and its functions aim to extinguish challenges named by 22,000 healthcare workers who completed a survey administered by the WHO last year.

Mental health

In the realm of psychiatry, VR is facilitating PTSD treatment for veterans. Veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan receive an exposure therapy called Bravemind, created by Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a psychologist and director of medical virtual reality at University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies.

Bravemind allows patients to revisit memories from war: Explosions, insurgents, smells, and vibrations occur at the push of a button. The patients are then guided through their painful memories with the expertise of a trained therapist. While further research on the efficacy of the program is warranted, the dozen or so Veteran Administration hospitals have seen a reduction in PTSD symptoms since Bravemind was introduced to patients.


Medical schools also are using VR for surgical training. One of these schools is UConn Health, the University of Connecticut’s medical center located in Kalamazoo, MI.

UConn Health uses Oculus technology to train orthopedic surgery residents by enabling them to perform 3D, virtual orthopedic surgeries, such as placing pins in broken bones. The residents have the freedom to make mistakes and correct them with feedback from superiors. The 3D technology is the product of a collaboration between Oculus and a Canadian medical software company called PrecisionOS.

Such advancements in medical technology could radically change healthcare in the future. In the meantime, doctors may wonder how their role in medicine might shift as a result.

Related: 4 must-have medical apps for doctors

The metaverse and medicine

The good news for doctors is that work will become easier with the help of the metaverse—especially for surgeons.

In a 2019 Clinical Epidemiology and Global Health review, researchers found that VR provided detailed, quality virtual depictions of patients’ anatomy. Access to 3D anatomical images significantly improved doctors’ surgical techniques. 

This success is reflected in a recent VentureBeat article, which delves into the use of 4K imaging, 3D displays for improved ergonomics among surgeons, and services akin to Zoom that would complement the operating theater. Surgeons are the most likely to reap the immediate benefits of these developments.

In the institution’s first VR surgeries, Johns Hopkins neurosurgeons worked using  Augmedics headsets. One crew performed a spinal fusion involving six screws. Another crew removed a cancerous tumor from a second patient’s spine just days later. The Augmedics headsets enabled each team to see the patients’ internal anatomies, including bones and tissue, which one doctor compared to having a GPS for surgery.

But the good news doesn’t stop at surgery. Clinical Epidemiology and Global Health also found that the application of VR to fields such as cardiology, neurology, trauma and bone fractures, and rehabilitation practices improved patient outcomes. 

Related: Is startup investing right for doctors?

Challenges on the horizon

One of the potential roadblocks of the metaverse lies in the nature of virtual reality. According to, person-to-person relationships between doctors and patients are a traditional aspect of healthcare. Doctors hear from their patients about symptoms directly, and use their skill set to address and treat them.

The metaverse, however, relies on the ability to share data across systematic, institutional, and national lines. It holds potential for cyber attacks—as do all digital platforms—which is a risk leading VR companies must assess. Creating and maintaining an unhackable system is a tall order.

Privacy and compliance issues are also on the list of challenges posed by the metaverse. VentureBeat notes that surgeons would ideally like to share footage of a particularly difficult operation for educational purposes, while the companies behind the technology would like to use the footage to advertise their product. Maintaining patient confidentiality is a priority, however, which may curtail positive health outcomes for patients in the long-term.

While the metaverse is still in its infancy and in need of revisions, the future of healthcare seems to have taken root—at least partially—in developing VR technologies. 

What this means for you

For clinicians in training, the metaverse may one day become as commonplace as Gray’s Anatomy. And for HCPs already in the workforce, the decades ahead are likely to reveal a blurring of the lines between the metaverse and conventional reality, with new meta-tools supporting clinical care in the real world. This evolution likely will produce data-security  and regulatory concerns, as well as possible disruption to the traditional clinician-patient relationship.


  1. Garfan, S. Alamoodi, AH. et al. Telehealth utilization during the Covid-19 pandemic: A systematic review. Computers in Biology and Medicine. 2021;138:104878.

  2. Javaid M, Haleem A. Virtual reality applications toward medical field. Clinical Epidemiology and Global Health. 2020;8(2):600-605.

  3. Lawton, G. Surgeons cautiously embrace medical metaverse. VentureBeat. 2021.

  4. Travieso, F. Is There a Place for Healthcare in the Metaverse?. 2021.

  5. Woods, B. The first metaverse experiments? Look to what’s already happening in medicine. CNBC. 2021.

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