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'A google map of the body' – how the metaverse is transforming the healthcare industry

27 February 2023. Published by Ellie McCarthy, Associate

Twins Bernardo and Arthur Lima were born conjoined at the head in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At almost four years old, they have undergone seven extensive surgeries in order to be separated. The operations involved almost 100 medical staff and were led by surgeon Dr Noor ul Owase Jeelani in at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and Dr Gabriel Mufarrej in Brazil.

Yes, that is correct, two separate teams, in two separate countries, working together on the same operations. Described by Dr Jeelani as "man-on-mars stuff", these teams were provided with Metaverse virtual reality headsets, where the teams spent months practising to perfect the procedures using VR projections of the twins made up from their CT and MRI scans. This allowed the teams to successfully complete one of the most complex separation processes in history.

But what is the Metaverse and what does it mean for the future of healthcare?

In July 2021, Meta (previously Facebook) founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would be transitioning from a social media platform to that of "the metaverse". As part of its evolution, Meta developed the highly advanced VR technology headset that was used for the twins' surgery.

In simple terms, the Metaverse is the amalgamation of physical and virtual realities. Take the CT and MRI scans of the twin boys as an example – these physical images were projected into a separate reality, where virtual surgery could be tried and tested before performed in real life. This has the obvious benefit of trialling risky surgeries without putting the patient at risk. As Accenture's 2022 'Digital Health Technology Vision Report' reported, the Metaverse is "the next horizon in healthcare", where surgical teams can practice and learn from procedures before performing the real thing.

A stark contrast to the traditional teaching of surgery (we all know the old adage "see one, do one, teach one"), this new technology allows medical professionals the opportunity for trial and error, prior to performing real surgery. This has many benefits for the future of medicine. Recent medical students at the University of Connecticut were taught and performed real life surgeries using Meta's VR technology. Metaverse surgery allowed mistakes to be made in virtual reality and feedback to be shared and actioned before the students carried out the procedures on real-life patients. Owing to this, it was stated that students were able to learn 570% faster with a 7x increase in performance.

VR technology has benefits for seasoned professionals during live surgery too, such as to help navigate surgical instruments to the correct place, and to alert surgeons when they should consider removing additional, suspect tissue.

Ultimately, this means that medical professionals will be confident performing highly intricate and ever-changing surgeries, and that confidence will surely benefit the patient experience leading to fewer claims and a more efficient and streamlined process.

For medmal insurers, the challenge will be keeping up with this everchanging technological landscape. Underwriters will want to examine policy wording rigorously to ensure that risks are properly identified, and careful consideration is given to where cover should fall. The age-old question of distinguishing operator error from product performance is likely to arise, territorial limits may need to be reviewed and surgical roles and responsibilities carefully defined.  What we can be sure of is that 'space-age medicine' has well and truly arrived.