By Lukas-Karim Merhi and Gautam Sadarangani, Co-founders, Tenzr Health
The concept of a network of online virtual worlds has been around for a few decades, but we have Mark Zuckerberg to thank for “metaverse” becoming a current buzzword in business and tech circles. Last year, the Facebook founder and CEO announced that his company was changing its name to Meta Platforms and would be focusing on building a digital platform that users can access via virtual-reality headsets and augmented reality.
“We believe the metaverse will be the successor of the mobile internet,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “We’ll be able to feel present—like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are.”
Naturally, the metaverse gold rush began in earnest, with McDonald’s announcing plans for a “virtual restaurant” and Walmart apparently planning to venture into the virtual space complete with its own cryptocurrency and collection of NFTs. It’s shaping up to be a very big business, but beyond the scope of major retailers and hamburger chains lies even greater potential for the metaverse as a cutting-edge healthcare platform—specifically for physical therapy.
Many Americans have already become accustomed to receiving healthcare services through electronic means. The use of telehealth is on the rise in the U.S., spurred in large part by COVID-19 having made in-person appointments either unavailable or undesirable. By the summer of 2021, use of telehealth was 38 times higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions and injuries—including carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow—affect more than half of Americans aged 18 and over, and nearly three out of four aged 65 and over. These upper-limb injuries can be difficult to assess and treat. A key part of the rehabilitation process is for a physical therapist to teach the patient how to move properly in order to regain mobility or prevent injury. Successful recovery is highly dependent on the patient completing their prescribed exercises often enough, and correctly, and there is often insufficient time for a therapist to treat and retrain bad movement patterns in the clinic.
Patients end up having to figure out how to do their exercises on their own—exercises that can feel tedious and unengaging. These self-guided workouts are not tracked, leaving patients with no way of knowing if they are completing them correctly or improving over time, and provide rehabilitation professionals with limited insight for clinical decision-making.
The good news is that a new generation of medical devices is on the verge of revolutionizing rehab for MSK conditions. Equipped with wearable sensors, patients are guided through interactive games that provide real-time visual biofeedback, empowering them to do their exercises correctly.
It’s not just fun and games
In effect, these wearables transform the user’s limb into a game controller. The infusion of game mechanics into therapy is designed to make the process more engaging and fun for the patient. Melding that experience with virtual reality and moving it into the 3D digital realm of the metaverse could only make the experience an even more powerful one.
This isn’t just fun and games; there is solid science behind it. In a study published in the journal Pediatric Physical Therapy, a team of Dutch researchers noted that “The gamification of therapy has potential to increase participants’ motivation and engagement in therapy.” Using multisensory cues and rewards, immersive games enable the release of dopamine and can improve synaptic connections while helping to form new neuronal networks.
In the context of MSK rehabilitation, this could take the form of an epic game in which the player/patient progresses through a series of levels that mirror their rehab journey. They might start by moving their injured limb in certain ways as guided by the game, with wearable sensors measuring their joint angles and tracking their range of motion to establish a baseline movement pattern. The software guides the patient from level to level, introducing games designed to improve the way they move. Their level of engagement with the game will help them push past any pain or discomfort, allowing the patient to get stronger and more flexible until ultimately they “win the game” by reaching the point of full recovery.
The technology is advancing so rapidly that the delivery of healthcare services and the further gamification of therapy in the metaverse seems like an inevitability, although we’re not quite there yet. (Another inevitability is that the regulatory framework that will actually make it all possible will lag years behind the tech—but that’s another story altogether.) Of course, exactly what the future holds is anyone’s guess. As Zuckerberg himself has said, “The best way to understand the metaverse is to experience it yourself, but it’s a little tough because it doesn’t fully exist yet.”
When it does, the combination of wearables and gamified therapy in a boundless online world might just be a game-changer for physical therapists and their patients.
TENZR Health was co-founded by Lukas-Karim Mehri, Co-Founder and CEO and Gautam Sadarangani, Co-Founder and President & COO. TENZR combines intelligent wearable sensors, healthcare expertise, and gamification to support rehabilitation professionals holistically carry the patient through the rehabilitation journey. Lukas and Gautam are expert biomedical engineers and entrepreneurs focused on leveraging novel biomedical technologies to empower patients, providers and healthcare systems with the goal of improving outcomes and patient experience.