South Africa faces significant challenges providing wider access to healthcare. The World Bank places South Africa’s doctor resources at 0.8 per 1 000 people – well below those of fellow BRICS nations Brazil (2.3) and Russia (3.8).
Technology offers many potential solutions to this life-threatening challenge, but perhaps the most exciting and promising of these is the Metaverse; a single, shared, immersive, persistent, virtual space, where people can experience life in ways vastly different to the physical world.
Bloomberg estimates the global metaverse market could approach $800 billion by 2024, and $2.5 trillion by 2030. Standing at the convergence of cutting-edge disruptive technologies such as 5G, blockchain, AI-ML, cloud, and internet of things (IoT), it is driving a new age of digital transformation, and unlocking new possibilities.
Traditionally, healthcare has required physical engagement between patients and health professionals, but this is changing. New innovations like telemedicine, virtual consultations, robotic surgery and remote medical training are revolutionising the medical profession.
The Metaverse is part of this wave of emerging medical technologies. In the words of Ram Rao Balla, Enterprise Architect in the TCS, “the Metaverse has the potential to reshape global healthcare and give people affordable access to the quality medical care they deserve.”
The emergence of remote care and telemedicine, as well as e-commerce, during the Covid-19 pandemic proved that new technologies could be quickly adopted and could have huge efficiency and safety advantages.
Already Rand Merchant Bank and Telehealth are offering telehealth solutions in South Africa. These emerging trends will be all the more exciting if the disruptive Metaverse technology can improve access and bring down costs.
Here are some examples of real-world use cases that we can expect to see from the metaverse in healthcare:
Patients and physicians are already interacting via avatars in Metaverse mental health clinics in industrialised nations. For therapy sessions, environments can be personalised to individual patients. Metaverse psychotherapy will likely prove useful for people with phobias, stress, addiction, eating disorders and other conditions. VR is already being used in aversion therapy, with patients safely experiencing virtual versions of situations that cause them anxiety. Futuristic medical consultation could involve clinicians across continents using a 3D model of a patient to reach a diagnosis using VR glasses and gloves. In South Africa, the improved connectivity of 5G networks would support this.
Transforming Hospital Visits
During the pandemic, the risk of infection led to restrictions on visits to patients in hospital – even those at the end of their lives. To mitigate this issue in future, the Metaverse can make virtual visits possible for family and friends. This will allow for far greater emotional support for the patient and drive quicker recovery without compromising safety.
Medical Education and Virtual Training
Simulation training in the Metaverse can help trainees get an up-close view of surgical procedures, complete with enhanced haptic controls. AR and VR are already used to train medical students and clinicians by stimulating real procedures and the human anatomy. The Metaverse will allow medical students to train for complex procedures using 3D replicas of patients. Currently, AR has made its way into the medical school curriculum in many countries and has shown a positive outcome in medicine.
A surgeon performing an operation in remote Eastern Cape may be able to collaborate with the best surgeons across the world through their avatars in the Metaverse. Already, VR and AR simulation is used for efficient, safe, and measurable medical training. However, VR or AR do come with technical challenges around creating realistic physical objects and surgical interfaces within a computer-generated space and processing signals for complicated events during surgeries.
Challenges and Opportunities in South Africa
As with any disruptive technology, the metaverse is certain to face roadblocks with adoption. Since most of the AR, VR, and MR devices are not lightweight, portable, and expensive, similar challenges are posed to the wide-scale adoption of the metaverse. In addition to hardware accessibility, another challenge lies in sourcing high-quality and high-performance models that can achieve the right retina display and pixel density for a realistic virtual immersion. Just as in any innovative technology, there is an important consideration of “responsible use” which cannot be overemphasized in the case of the Metaverse.
In South Africa, loadshedding also presents a challenge, as Metaverse technology is dependent on uninterrupted power supply. Although there are initiatives by government to ensure several hospitals are exempt from loadshedding, this needs to be extended to gain the full potential of Metaverse technology. The eventual structure of the Metaverse should be secure, scalable, and reliable. They must also be interoperable with other real-world and virtual medical facilities.
To realise the potential of the Metaverse in healthcare will also require specialised infrastructure to function, from uninterrupted 6G to hi-tech hardware, glasses, sensors, and other wearables. Patients may require equipment to adhere to prescribed treatments. Whether medical aids will be willing to pay for such technology remains to be seen.
As the Metaverse evolves, it will require a balanced approach with enhanced security, privacy controls and principles. Ultimately, for South Africa, the most powerful game-changing impact will be if the Metaverse can improve access to medical care for the underserved people of the country. The metaverse may feel like a futuristic concept now, however as the technology matures, it will evolve into an extension of our physical world – or rather, an “extended reality”.
- Langa Dube, Regional Director for TCS South Africa and Rest of Africa