3 Health Challenges The “Drug Averse” Could Address

by Corinna Lathan, PhD and Daniel Kraft, MD, founder of NextMed Health.

We hear a lot about technologies converging to form one, or probably multiple, versions of a metaverse. [1] These technologies include web 3.0 – the internet made more secure and distributed by blockchain; augmented, virtual and mixed reality (AR/VR/XR) — which combine our physical and digital realities; and artificial intelligence—computers programmed to have human-like processing capabilities.

A version of a metaverse will likely enable healthcare across the continuum of prevention, diagnosis, therapy, and education. We call this version of the metaverse the “med-averse” or “medi-verse”. A recent Accenture report [2] suggested that these technologies building the metaverse will impact healthcare by enabling features such as:

  • Telepresence – providing care from a distance
  • Virtual training and education — making medical training more accessible and immersive
  • Therapy—using AR/VR/XR to treat pain, in physical therapy, and more [3]
  • Digital twinning—emulating individuals and communities to advance medical initiatives and enable highly personalized health journeys for wellness and more accurate and effective prevention, diagnostics and therapies

What we don’t hear enough of are the health challenges that these technologies and resources can address. What follows is evidence that we can leverage the potential of drug aversion to tackle some big challenges like chronic disease, the mental health crisis, and health disparities.

Prevention of chronic diseases

Chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are widespread in the United States, and the leading causes of death and chronic disease disproportionately affect people in rural areas and in lower socioeconomic brackets. [4]

A recent article by Skalidis et al. [5] talks about the “cardioverse,” painting a picture of the future of cardiovascular medicine that leverages the immersive metaverse to help motivate exercise, monitor heart health, and provide access to care. The potential for inspiring lifestyle changes is particularly profound, as we know that lifestyle factors are critical to mitigating the severity of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. In fact, the book Undo by Anne and Dean Ornish was inspired by a randomized clinical trial that showed that the effects of coronary artery disease can be reversed with a combination of diet, exercise, stress reduction, and social support. [6]

We all know it’s easier said than done to eat better, exercise more, reduce stress, and love more. But technology can help. Just as we use wearable activity trackers, food and drug subscription services, and dating apps, drug averse will be a collection of technologies we can leverage to facilitate personalized lifestyle changes.

Facing the mental health crisis

We weren’t doing so well in addressing behavioral and mental health before the pandemic, and the isolation and stress of COVID has exacerbated the problem, which the department of health and human services, among others, is calling a crisis. [7]

Decades of research using immersive VR has helped patients deal with stress, which can and should be leveraged as we build the averse to. The last two years of the Cybertherapy and Telemedicine Annual Review [8] focused on applications of the metaverse to conditions such as chronic pain, depression, eating disorders, alcohol use disorder, emotion regulation, trauma, and grief.

VR platforms are taking advantage of the continued rise in gaming popularity and becoming part of the mental health solution. [9] For example, DeepWell Therapeutics has created mental health video games that treat mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. TRIPP created the “Aware Metaverse” and has been shown to improve well-being through VR-guided mindfulness and meditation. [10]

Tackling health disparities

Health disparities exist, in part, because of ingrained biases based on education, economics, race, age, gender, and more. Working to address health disparities will require systemic change on many levels. Technology, in general, should be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and the medicine-averse specifically can reach many underserved populations. For example, our earlier “cardioverse” example could engage a broader spectrum of at-risk individuals to help prevent heart disease through accessing care and encouraging healthy habits.

Another aspect of health disparities is the lack of inclusion in clinical trials and the widespread “one size fits all” approach to medical treatment. med-averse could be used to conduct clinical trials in a virtual environment. This can save time and money, as well as reduce the risks associated with traditional clinical trials. It could also facilitate the participation of patients in underrepresented populations in clinical trials.

Ultimately, providing access to care, using drug-avers for more inclusive clinical trials and individualized treatment is all theoretical until someone puts their money where their mouth is. Recent research has shown the effectiveness of immersive VR in treating chronic pain. [11] This is actually not surprising to most of us in the health technology fields. What is surprising and most impactful is that the Veterans Administration (VA) will pay for this. [12] This is a promising first step towards a metaverse-enabled mediverse that helps address significant health challenges.

This article was co-written by Daniel Kraft, MD. Dr. Kraft is a Stanford and Harvard-trained physician-scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, and innovator and is founder of NextMed Health.

3 Health Challenges The “Drug Averse” Could Address

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