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The tech industry has seen a seismic shift in awareness around the metaverse following Facebook’s rebranding to Meta and announcements about its development from other tech leaders like Microsoft, AMD, Nvidia and Epic Games. However, it’s true potential lies beyond gaming, social media and consumer technology. For one thing, therapy in this new format, could soon become the standard way to get and provide mental health care.
In this digital age of interconnectedness, our society has become more cut-off than ever before. A recent report by Harvard suggests that 36% of all Americans, including 61% of young adults, feel “serious loneliness,” which recent research indicates is a key risk factor for mental health conditions. One study by the American Cancer Society analyzed data from more than 580,000 adults and found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death for every race.
Unable to access face-to-face care during the pandemic, many people are turning to support online. As VR headsets grow in popularity, that same technology could soon become an essential tool for therapy that is more engaging than traditional telemedicine or mobile apps.
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More access, more options
Many healthcare companies are developing innovative new business models in the metaverse to solve current challenges. Companies that make therapy sessions more human will be the ones that will make the greatest impact on therapy in the metaverse.
Most people still prefer in-person care, as evidenced by a recent survey by The Harris Poll finding that 80% of US patients “always prefer” face-to-face visits. This is mainly because sessions that take place in a therapist’s office provide a space away from everyday life, and can increase trust when compared to digital therapy.
Conversely, a recent poll conducted by BetterHelp, found that 35% of those surveyed claimed that their opinion of how a therapy session went, was dependent on which day of the week the appointment took place, the weather outside (31%) or by recent current events (30%).
That’s why the metaverse care model has the potential to radically change how digital therapy is delivered. Simply put, it’s as close to being in-person as you can get.
Being able to access support without geographical limitations from the comfort of your home has already taken off with telemedicine, but the metaverse provides a much more life-like experience.
This new increased depth of immersion can create greater engagement, focus, and connectedness compared to other digital therapy solutions. The natural environments and the intuitive nature of the design can also lead to a greater bond between patients and providers. There is a possibility that treatment outcomes can be improved due to these potential benefits but more research is needed to find out the best way to deliver therapy through VR.
My company, Rocket VR Health, is getting ready to launch a clinical trial exploring the use of mental health therapy delivered via virtual reality in patients undergoing stem cell transplantation. We have partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to take a well-researched conventional therapy program and transform it into an immersive VR treatment.
We hypothesize that the result will be a more effective, accessible, and data-driven approach to therapy, which could be invaluable not just for the participants in the trial, but also for countless individuals suffering from mental health conditions for years to come.
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When will we see metaverse therapy?
Despite all the Facebook and Web3 metaverse hype, the reality is VR headsets are expensive, and though usage is growing, it’s estimated that only 12.5 million were sold in 2021. The majority of the metaverses that currently exist are for entertainment and healthcare is typically much slower to catch on.
For starters, healthcare providers must ensure that they properly manage patient data and provide security that meets the highest standards of mental healthcare.
In addition, further research needs to be done to prove the efficacy of VR therapy and convince insurance companies to cover this new treatment delivery method. We’re hoping that research like our study with Massachusetts General will help make the case. Previous research findings are positive, and the FDA approved the first VR software as a medical device to treat pain management. Meanwhile, insurance companies are already covering VR-based telemedicine.
Lastly, the most compelling therapy offerings will provide headsets to patients directly, so that access to the most well-researched, cutting-edge treatments isn’t dependent upon individual purchases of VR technology by consumers.
The exciting news is that a small but growing group of researchers, technologists and investors are already beginning to overcome these challenges. Slowly but surely, the metaverse will be a bigger part of all of our lives, and — given the proper attention — mental health may prove to be one of its best use cases in due time.
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