Dr. Justin Barad recalls times when he or colleagues would do quick Google searches in the middle of a procedure as a refresh, or to bone up on a surgery they had never performed before.

Or, being asked to assess his surgical proficiency by playing the classic game “Operation” (for the record, he was able to do it without getting buzzed).

These are just a couple of instances that underscore the fact that extended reality (XR), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are “unbelievably critical and more important than ever” in healthcare, he said. 

Still, we’re not quite there yet.

How can the technology be implemented in healthcare with the least disruption? How can regulators foster adoption? How can healthcare experts identify the most valuable platforms?

These are the main barriers and hurdles, as identified by Barad and colleagues in a panel discussion at this week’s virtual MetaBeat event. (Want to join us IRL? Come to the in-person MetaBeat event on Tuesday, October 4, in San Francisco.)

With XR, VR and AR “the potential is limitless. The imagination runs wild,” said Barad. 

“That creates a challenge because it really feels like anything is possible, but to make that possible can be a lot of work and you really need to be focused to execute and scale a technology — especially in healthcare.”

The pandemic changed everything (for bad and good)

COVID-19 has thrust us into a virtual world, and people have come to realize that virtual healthcare is not only possible, but beneficial, said Amy Raimundo, managing director with Kaiser Permanente Ventures

Now it’s a matter of pragmatism, she said: How technology can drive better quality outcomes and efficiencies.

“We don’t think of it in terms of the metaverse, we think of it in terms of how technology can help us enable virtual education, virtual collaboration,” said Raimundo.

XR, VR and AR can bring efficiencies to repeatable processes in healthcare and enable training at scale, she said. And, healthcare professionals are beginning to use VR in clinical trials and some treatments, so it’s moved beyond the concept of “a bright, shiny object” to a tool that can be put to real use. 

“We’re really seeing practical applications, as opposed to what can happen,” said Raimundo. 

Bradley Tusk, cofounder and managing partner of Tusk Venture Partners, agreed, pointing to the fact that doctors have adopted virtual visits as a regular practice. The next step: Actually performing procedures such as CAT scans and X-rays with VR. 

“In the last few years, we’ve seen major, major advances in digital health, in many ways thanks to COVID — it’s weird to ever say ‘Thanks to COVID’ — but it really did make the value proposition much clearer to medical professionals, consumers, regulators, and led to more widespread acceptance,” said Tusk. 

The need for a healthcare metaverse

Barad, who launched virtual surgical training platform Osso in October 2016, underscored the criticality of medical training. There are 1.1 million surgeons in the world, and 300 million surgeries are performed annually, he said. 

But, training can be lacking. He identified three core factors contributing to this: modern surgery is complicated (robotics and minimally invasive techniques take much longer to learn), the industry lacks methods to assess surgical proficiency and, most notably, there’s simply too much to learn. 

“Accelerating science and technology is spreading us too thin,” he said. “We’ve gone from the French laundry to the Cheesecake Factory; you just can’t do everything well.”

Particularly in the medical field, training is not just reading books or watching videos; it requires coordination, collaboration and collective rehearsing, he said. With VR, medical professionals can remotely train as a team. 

“It’s not just connecting us digitally, it’s allowing us to be present together,” said Barad.

Not a ‘move fast and break things’ mentality

Still, one of the main obstacles is the expense — and that’s not necessarily the technology itself, but the implementation, said Raimundo. 

She described healthcare as a complex system of highly skilled people “working together in a symphony.” When a new technology disrupts that — putting it out of tune, if you will — it must be justified. 

“Disruption in healthcare is not a good thing,” she said. 

New technologies must be introduced thoughtfully and consider distribution and workflows, she said. Getting buy-in and building confidence around these technologies is also critical. Once you can get past that curve, it only feels natural and rational. 

Medicine itself changes all the time, so experts must narrow the field where technologies can make the most difference. “The mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ does not work in healthcare,” said Raimundo. 

Tusk also emphasized the importance of regulator support. During COVID, regulators acted in the best interest of the general population “for once,” he said, by waiving state licensure restrictions and allowing controlled substances to be delivered via mail. 

“This is a good thing,” he said. “We are providing better care, more affordable care to people.” 

But now, protectionism is creeping back in again. He said he has sat down with regulators on both ends of the spectrum — and while on most points, they are in massive disagreement, they are unified on this front. For technology adoption to be successful going forward, entrenched interests must be dealt with. The industry and regulators must also be aware that bad actors in areas unrelated to healthcare might deter adoption of a healthcare metaverse. 

So, too, can companies that people are skeptical of — such as Meta, which, as Barad described, has “quintupled down” on its use of AR. 

Ultimately, as he put it: “We are just scratching the surface of the depth of use cases.”

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Discover our Briefings.