A team of researchers paint a cautiously optimistic picture for the use of metaverse technologies in the treatments of cancer patients. In a recent study, the researchers say that the Metaverse could be a more convenient, more immersive way for doctors to interact with patients. But, they also worry about privacy and equitable access.
Web3 technologies, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, will give doctors a chance to “bring” the patient into the data in ways that are more understandable, according to researchers According to Alan Mcwilliam, division of cancer science, faculty of biology, medicine, health, University of Manchester and Peter Scarfe, associate professor in psychology and head of the Vision and Haptics Laboratory.
They write in the journal Clinical Oncology: “Clinicians could have an enhanced ability to view and manipulate medical data, for example imaging information, to come to better diagnoses and treatment plans. They would be able to communicate complex information to patients regarding their treatment options. For example, doctors and patients could collaboratively view treatment scenarios in a shared immersive environment.”
The researchers see possibilities including consults between doctors and patients located anywhere in the world.
This could be particularly important for patients with rare conditions and diseases who do not have access to specialists because of distance.
They also see virtual reality as more personal than telephone or video chats.
“Virtual consultations would not be limited to impersonal telephone or video calls, as we have experienced in the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers write. “Rather, they would be ‘virtual in-person consultations’, blurring the boundaries of reality and offering a far more natural way of interacting, for example, reaching out to feel the texture of your cancer compared with surrounding tissue.”
“The metaverse could offer a way in which to ease and enhance the patient’s experience. Patients could be put at ease with the logistics of treatment, such as the large noisy unfamiliar equipment needed for radiotherapy, by having a virtual metaverse visit to the hospital site where they will receive treatment and meet the clinical team in the metaverse prior to in person.”
The Metaverse may even have advantages over real-world hospitals.
“Hospitals can often be busy, daunting and confusing experiences for patients, making it hard to absorb complex treatment information,” they write. “The metaverse could offer a way in which to ease and enhance the patient’s experience. Patients could be put at ease with the logistics of treatment, such as the large noisy unfamiliar equipment needed for radiotherapy, by having a virtual metaverse visit to the hospital site where they will receive treatment and meet the clinical team in the metaverse prior to in person.”
The prospects seem idea — but the researchers are also cautious not to let the hype of the Metaverse obscure some real-world issues.
The researchers write: “However, there are substantial issues that will need to be resolved to ensure fair and equitable access for all individuals. The most pertinent of these is privacy and data ownership. Companies such as Facebook (now Meta) have a chequered history regarding exploiting users’ personal data for financial gain. For example, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where the personal data of millions of users were collected, without consent, and used for targeted political advertising. This becomes critical when the data are not just your network of friends and preferences for different products or political parties, but instead detailed personal medical data.”
The Metaverse could expand — or even create new — socioeconomic and technological divides, they point out, adding, “Accessing the metaverse may be prohibitively costly and technically challenging to groups such as the elderly, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those who struggle to engage with technology.”
The researchers cite 2018 statistics from the The Office for National Statistics that indicate 8% of the UK population had zero digital literacy skills and a further 12% were estimated to only have limited digital abilities.
To take advantage of the Metaverse in oncology — while minimizing its potential drawbacks — Mcwilliam and Scarfe recommend learning from other technological fields, as well as starting discussions right now.
“We need to learn from fast-paced technical developments of other fields,” they write. “A current example is the speed of technical development of medical artificial intelligence tools, which has outpaced ethical considerations, reporting recommendations and engagement from clinicians and patients. This has resulted in a multitude of artificial intelligence tools that are not validated and not fit for purpose. To fully enable all that the metaverse offers, this engagement and discussions need to start now. Only by doing so will the hype of the metaverse be realised, building trust in this technology and enabling benefits for medical professionals, patients and society.”