The metaverse, a virtual world where people can interact with each other and digital objects, has the potential to improve public health in several ways. The metaverse can be used to educate people about health and raise awareness about various health issues. For instance, virtual health fairs, health seminars, and health campaigns can be organized within the metaverse to provide information about disease prevention, healthy living, and other health-related topics.
The metaverse can provide a platform for people to connect with mental health professionals and receive mental health support. For example, virtual support groups, therapy sessions, and counseling services can be offered within the metaverse to help people cope with mental health issues.
The metaverse is a technological revolution in virtual reality that has the potential to benefit public health research. A new study suggests that the metaverse can help us design, test, and experience health-promoting environments to reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases.
The “metaverse” has captivated the public imagination as a world of infinite possibilities that can affect all aspects of life. Until the rebranding of Facebook as “Meta” in 2021, discussions about the utility of completely immersible virtual environments were limited to a small number of tech and Sci-Fi circles. The concept of the metaverse has gained a lot of attention since then, and researchers are now starting to explore ways in which virtual environments can be used to improve scientific and health research.
A metaverse could allow stakeholders to experience, build, and collaboratively modify proposed changes to the built environment before these interventions are implemented in the physical world.Prof. Koohsari
What are the key opportunities and uncertainties in the metaverse that can help us better manage non-communicable diseases? This is the subject of a paper recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, authored by Associate Professor Javad Koohsari from the School of Knowledge Science at Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST), who is also an adjunct researcher at the Faculty of Sport Sciences at Waseda University, along with Professor Yukari Nagai from JAIST; Professor Tomoki Nakaya from Tohoku University; Professor Akitomo Yasunaga from Bunka Gakuen University; Associate Professor Gavin R. McCormack from University of Calgary; Associate Professor Daniel Fuller from the University of Saskatchewan; and Professor Koichiro Oka from Waseda University. The team lists three ways in which the metaverse might potentially be used for large-scale health interventions targeting non-communicable diseases.
Diabetes, heart disease, strokes, chronic respiratory disease, cancers, and mental illness are all heavily influenced by the “built environment,” or the man-made surroundings with which we are constantly in contact. Built environments can have an immediate impact on health through acute effects such as pollution, or they can have an indirect impact by influencing physical activity, sedentary behavior, diet, and sleep. As a result, health interventions that alter built environments have the potential to reduce the health burden of non-communicable diseases.
This is where the metaverse can come in handy. Experiments in virtual settings within the metaverse can be used to test the efficacy of large-scale interventions before they are implemented, saving time and money. “Within a metaverse, study participants could be randomly assigned to different built environment exposures such as high and low density, high and low walkability, or different levels of nature or urban environments,” explains Prof. Koohsari, the paper’s lead author and one of the top 2% of most influential researchers globally across all scientific disciplines in 2021. “This article will be of particular interest to experts in public health, urban design, epidemiology, medicine, and environmental sciences, particularly those considering using the metaverse for research and intervention purposes,” he continues.
Secondly, the article notes that the metaverse itself can be used to implement health interventions. For example, the metaverse can expose people to natural “green” environments even if they have little or no access to them in the real world. In this way, the metaverse may mitigate the negative mental health effects of crowded, stressful environments.
The metaverse’s virtual living spaces and offices can be completely customized. Furthermore, changes to metaverse environments can be implemented with the click of a button. As a result, the metaverse may also provide a virtual space for real-time testing of new office and built environment designs. “A metaverse could allow stakeholders to experience, build, and collaboratively modify proposed changes to the built environment before these interventions are implemented in the physical world,” Prof. Koohsari adds.
Although it lists several ways in which the metaverse can transform public health interventions by modifying built environments, the article notes key limitations of the metaverse in simulating the real world. In particular, the current state of the metaverse does now allow for the testing of many human behaviours or their interaction with built environments. In addition, the population of the metaverse may not be representative, as people from economically lower strata have limited access to virtual reality technology.
The article also investigates how the metaverse can have a negative impact on population health. Excessive immersion in virtual environments, for example, may result in social isolation, anti-social behavior, and negative health effects associated with inactivity or increased screen time. Finally, the article warns that over-reliance on artificial intelligence may result in the virtual replication of real-world biases and social inequalities. Prof. Koohsari concludes, “It is best to face the prospects and challenges that the metaverse can offer to different scientific fields, and in our case, public health, sooner rather than later.”