The healthcare metaverse: merging technology with medicine

Bradley Schurman

Founder and CEO of The Super Age

The healthcare metaverse: merging technology with medicine

11 May 2022 | 15min

Quick Takes

  • Technological advancements are helping expand preventative healthcare so that older populations can live longer in good health

  • Empathy is a critical component to creating technologies that will reduce pain points for consumers

  • Through the healthcare metaverse, providers can bring healthcare back into the home

It is clear that technology is significantly advancing how we diagnose and treat patients. As we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth and in-home healthcare are becoming integrated into our daily lives. Healthcare leaders need to understand how these innovations, including the new virtual reality known as the metaverse, can address the pain points for both customers and employees.

In the second of this 2-part interview, we sat down with Bradley Schurman, Founder and CEO of The Super Age, and author of the book “The Super Age: Decoding Our Demographic Destiny” to explore the emerging trends in technology within healthcare.

How Super Agers are using tech for preventative health

HT: There’s no doubt that we’ve made significant strides in technology in just the past two years, from rapid COVID tests to health tech to digital wearable devices. How can leaders use technology to boost preventative health?

Bradley Schurman: Preventative health is the space right now that is the most exciting and dynamic. One of the interesting things that happens every time we extend life is that new life stages emerge. 

People tend to think that getting older as a population means that we’re just tacking years onto the end of life. We’re actually pushing years into the middle, which means this middle age keeps expanding. When it expands, portions snap off into these new life stages. We have that happening right now between traditional middle age and retirement. 

I like to call this group “Super Agers” or “The Middle Plus.” This group of people is so unique and such an attractive marketplace for health providers. These “Super Agers” are saying, “I am taking control of my well-being. We’re not going to go quietly into the night. We’re not going to walk away from life.”

Today, many of them, who are high-net-worth or actively engaged in employment, are digitally literate. They’re cognitively better off now than previous generations and more physically fit than ever before. They’re taking this active control and management of their healthcare, which creates an entirely new consumer group. They’re actively seeking out products and services that will help them achieve that. 

The Apple Watch is a perfect example of this. 

My parents, both 71 years old, use the Apple Watch in a way that’s almost obsessive, as they talk about closing their circles or reading their diagnostics on a regular basis. They’re also going to the gym four or five days a week, eating healthy and monitoring their portions, and scheduling routine visits to their doctor. They see this device as a tool that’s going to keep them healthier for longer. All of this is because they’re engaging in preventative, not responsive, care. We are now seeing how products and services, which may not be exclusively healthcare-driven, have a well-being component.

My parents are the quintessential “Super Ager.” This group does not want to go into nursing care or be admitted into the hospital. They want to retain their independence as long as humanly possible, and they’re about ready to pay whatever they can to do that.

When he was 67 years old, my father had a stroke. This was pretty traumatic on all of us. But because he was “young” enough, he could recuperate at a pretty fast rate. After rehab, he said, “I have to get a new car. I can’t drive my car anymore, so I’m going to get a Porsche Macan.” I replied, “That doesn’t seem very safe.” And he responded back saying, “No, it’s actually one of the safest cars on the road.” 

Surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the safest cars on the road. It has drive assist, push-button start, and almost holds you like a giant hug. It is built like a tank. It has safety features throughout so even if you were to be involved in an accident, you would be safe. After he purchased it, I asked him, “Dad, why did you buy it? It’s not just for the safety features, right.” He replied, “It’s a beautiful car, Brad. It’s a beautiful car.” 

This actually helped me develop the thesis around “The Super Age” not only as a book but also as a company. This new group of people is saying, “Goodbye big button devices of the past and to building devices just because I’m older. I’m going to stay part of the herd for longer periods of time. I’m going to run the pack, be part of the pack. And go to hell if you think I’m falling behind.” 

They’re going to leverage every piece of technology, whether it be actual high tech, health tech, or scientific tech to get them to that place. Even if these people do have some deficiencies, they’re going to appear as if they don’t. They’re going to be active about it and intentional, keeping up their mental and physical health. All this technology breeds a person who is going to live for longer periods of time in good health. 

Collaborating between technology and healthcare

HT: It is amazing how older generations are taking charge of their healthcare needs and using technology to accomplish it. How is the healthcare sector and the tech industry evolving?

Bradley Schurman: There’s just no question that alignment between the two sectors needs to continue. The question is how it will happen. They are in many ways siloed industries that don’t often interact. 

This is a challenge for the US because of the way our healthcare system is built. However, in countries with single-payer systems, some of this innovation may be delayed. Even though this may be healthier for the population at-large, it won’t necessarily spur innovation. In market-based economies and healthcare systems, one of the advantages is that they innovate very quickly, and they look for collaboration so they can plug themselves in.

The greatest point of innovation right now in healthcare is the home. We are at an inflection point with technologies that can help monitor us in our day-to-day living, all from home. For example, we can monitor our risk for falls, which costs on average $34,000 per person.1 Other systems can tell us if we might be suffering from some degree of dementia or Alzheimer’s.2 These preventative technologies not only are we taking away the burden from our healthcare system, but we’re also improving the quality of life for the individual.

A prime example of the collaboration between technology and healthcare is the rapid use of diagnostics for COVID-19. As I was traveling through Italy recently, an automated computer system was able to administer a COVID-19 test, and within 15 minutes, I was clear to go. That’s revolutionary. 

Bridging the generational gap

HT: Let’s continue our discussion on how companies are making revolutionary technological advances that are changing how people live. Within the healthcare system, how are these technologies bridging the gap between younger and older generations?

Bradley Schurman: Healthcare is bleeding into normal products and services, and normal products and services are bleeding into healthcare. So thinking of healthcare as a sole vertical is problematic in its own right. 

Apple is by all measures a technology company, but a significant portion of the work that they do now is around privacy and healthcare, more specifically, well-being and health management. They’ve done perhaps one of the best jobs of any company that I’ve seen at managing and engaging the Super Age population in a meaningful way. 

A device like the Apple Watch has a median age of ownership around 44 to 45 now.3 That’s high. As I mentioned earlier, they’re building into that device a number of different health technologies that help people maintain their health for longer periods of time. That’s pretty spectacular.

My dad’s purchase of his Porsche Macan is another example of bridging the gap between generations. Car companies like Porsche and BMW are also building innovations into their vehicles to enhance mobility for longer periods of time. These are in large part focused on the health realities that older populations sometimes have. We all think of the push start button as ubiquitous within a car right now. But that’s really an innovation that helps all people with mobility issues, especially within hand dexterity, be able to drive. That’s a good thing for all of us. 

Additionally, Toyota’s actually looking at building health monitoring technologies into the vehicle itself, monitoring for things like sleep and heart attacks. That’s pretty cool. 

Again, these examples get us away from the idea that health sits as a sole vertical. Rather, it puts us into probably a broader conversation about this new age that allows us to think of products and services as being somewhat more holistic in their approach. 

That’s something to get really excited about. It offers new opportunities for health-related businesses to really partner up with consumer goods, durable goods, and put these new innovations actually into the hands of consumers, rather than holding them on the sidelines.

Empathy and technology

HT: Empathy seems to be becoming a major driving force in many of today’s companies, from start-ups to large corporation. Among these Super Agers, what role does technology play in breeding empathy?

Bradley Schurman: While we have seen some real ugliness emerge from technology, on the whole, I think the promise of building empathy through technology amongst user groups is high.

A futurist and good friend of mine once said, “Can you imagine that today, we can visit a remote field hospital wearing VR goggles?” We would’ve never been able to do that before. As we get into immersive environments that allow us to potentially feel a patient for example, or have the olfactory responses to be able to smell what’s in the room, that would help us improve technologies, like diagnostics.

When I was a kid, my doctor would often ask me to breathe on him. Yes, it is strange and today, we would never allow that. But looking back, it was a quick way for him to diagnose, without necessarily doing a swab, if I had been infected with some type of bacteria.

If we’re able to get back to something like that, as rudimentary as it sounds, it would be an odd step forward. It gets back to common sense, not worrying completely about diagnostics all the time. It’s about relying on experience, especially the experience of physicians and those healthcare workers versus a test-test-test approach that we have today.

Bringing healthcare back into the home using the healthcare metaverse

HT: We’re looking towards a future with fewer people but longer lifespans. However, this also means increasing incidents of chronic diseases, an element that requires healthcare processes to become more efficient. What emerging healthcare technologies are here to stay? What gaps and opportunities do you see for healthcare providers?

Bradley Schurman: We used to talk about innovation and disruption a lot before the pandemic. We used to say, “Isn’t that a disruptive organization?” or “Isn’t that product innovative?” We now see how those companies and technologies pale in comparison to what we’re witnessing now.

The pandemic was a disruptive event and has changed everything. Looking clearly at the picture of healthcare today, we’ve learned a tremendous amount from the way we’ve managed the disease, or maybe not managed the disease. When it comes to technologies around mRNA, it goes without saying that this technology is going to change healthcare forever, specifically how we treat diseases. That’s pretty spectacular.

However, there are other pieces that have slid under the radar that is really the future for us. At least in the United States, but also in some other countries, digital health and telehealth have become far more normalized during this period. Governments have gotten out of the way and said “Okay, we get it. We’ll let the doctor come to you. We’ll let the healthcare providers come to you and your home.” A doctor or nurse can now live thousands of miles away from a patient and still do a diagnosis, or determine whether or not a hospital visit or a visit to the doctor’s office is really that necessary. This improves efficiencies across the board. 

As we build out these populations that are older and have fewer people in them, finding efficiencies is going to be very important to maintain the health and the operational status of our healthcare systems. We really don’t have a choice.

In the future, what is going to be really transformative? In my opinion, it’s going to be the metaverse, or web 3.0. It’s an immersive, virtual space where we can jump into avatars and actually go visit a person’s home without ever leaving our own.

The groundwork for this is already in place. There are doctors and surgeons in this country that are already operating via 5G networks on people half a continent away, if not farther.

It may sound like science fiction today, but it really is the next step in the way we deliver healthcare. Taking it out of the hospital and bringing it back into the home. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that having a doctor visit your home was not unusual. Now that’s going to happen again. 

It’s coming full circle right now, and we’re using technology as an enabler for where some of the social and scientific innovations have failed. It’s like we tripped over ourselves a number of times to get it right. We did that a lot during the mid-century and even up until the ’90s and early 2000s. But now, this metaverse technology will enable us to get back into life the way it was, just with the added benefit of being able to connect better to people.

The healthcare metaverse impact

HT: It is clear that healthcare spending continues to climb at an exponential rate. A significant proportion of that money is used for the upkeep of physical systems within healthcare. How do you think the metaverse will impact the future of hospitals as brick-and-mortar buildings and entire infrastructures?

Bradley Schurman: There’s good news and there’s bad news to this for hospital owners. The good news is they have a great chance to innovate right now and think about their hospitals as less than four walls and a roof, and more about being out there in the field. 

To me, the hospital is in many ways dead. People don’t want to go to them. There’s a great fear and stress that’s put on people that enter hospitals. Hospitals are good for solving quick problems, but not necessarily long-term ones. From a customer-centric point of view,  if they have the opportunity to be at home and stay at home, they’re going to choose it.

The question is when do we get to that tipping point that it’s allowed, where care can really be delivered at home in an efficient, safe, and affordable way. 

Hospitals are expensive to run. The footprint of maintaining a physical plant is a lot. However, hospitals won’t go away, rather they may turn into health centers. We may rely on other models of care to keep hospitals for those that are the sickest and need the most hands-on care. For many other healthcare aspects, moving it into the home or into another type of setting is a natural progression for us, and one that we should embrace. 

Physical hospitals are a product of the 1800s. That model needs to adapt to meet the needs of the future. That future will be in-home.

Blockchain in the healthcare metaverse

HT: Looking at the impact of the healthcare metaverse, how will it change the classical roles we are accustomed to in hospitals or point-of-care settings?

Bradley Schurman: The roles of all healthcare professionals will likely change in the near future. This adaptation will be disruptive for everyone within the health setting.

Now, we have this interesting push and pull between doctors and nurses, nurses and physician assistants (PAs), and PAs and doctors over who gets to do what, how they prescribe, etc. This push and pull will become more prevalent, and there will be groups that will take on bigger roles and those that will take on less. We’ll also have technologies that will enhance how we can do diagnostics as well.

We can rely on human intuition plus the technologies that sit around us. Obviously, artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to help with all of this too. 

So where do the doctors, nurses, PAs, and others in the chain of command come in? They still have valuable roles, but those responsibilities may update over time. In many industries, the COVID disruption has really threatened a lot of people who work in middle management because the technology within the metaverse that’s been built during this period of time allows for more transparent communication to pass from one person to another.

Blockchain, which is a key component of the metaverse that can be used to improve overall quality and trust, enhances responsibility up and down the chain of command and the way service is delivered. 

This will be revolutionary and help control all that paperwork, which is such a burdensome part of healthcare delivery now and one of the biggest complaints of healthcare staff. Using a blockchain-type environment, which increases accountability, could streamline this process. Blockchain inherently enhances efficiencies and could smooth the delivery of care.

Key takeaways for executives preparing to utilize the healthcare metaverse

HT: What are some other key pieces of advice you would give to healthcare executives who are preparing themselves for the shift towards the metaverse or virtual care? 

Bradley Schurman: There are four strategies that leaders can employ as they drive towards the healthcare metaverse.

1 Finding and investing in people on your team that can look at the “what’s next.” Allowing people who are either on the front lines or in a decision-making role should take a step back for a moment, assess the field, and see where healthcare and technology may be going within a particular region.
2 Look at where critical investments could be made right here and right now. Those investments can be small, but if you’re moving towards them and gaining an understanding of what might work, then you’re doing the job that you need to do. 
3 Everyone involved in healthcare delivery, especially in hospital settings, needs to move towards a “test-learn approach,” meaning they have to see what technologies are working and which technologies are not.
4 Take a look at what’s out there in the world, what’s happening amongst your peers. Speak to other doctors and healthcare providers and find out what’s working for them. Take a look at countries that are ahead of them, there are enough test cases happening around the world for leaders to say, “Yeah, we could get to that too” or “We aren’t ready yet.”

To hear more of Bradley’s insights around the aging demographic shift, be sure to read ‘The aging demographic shift: How healthcare leaders can create new opportunities and improve their workforce’.

Bradley Schurman is the Founder and CEO of The Super Age – a research and advisory firm specializing in helping organizations understand the challenges and harness the opportunities of demographic change with a focus on population aging. He is also the author of THE SUPER AGE: DECODING OUR DEMOGRAPHIC DESTINY. The Super Age works to ensure that these subjects are considered across organizational strategies from human resources, marketing and communication, and product and service design. Prior to launching The Super Age, Schurman was Co-Founder and Managing Partner of EconomyFour, where he led business development in Asia and Europe. Schurman has been instrumental in securing the topics of aging and longevity as focus areas at both the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and World Economic Forum (WEF). He was also responsible for visioning and executing the Aging Readiness and Competitiveness Report- a groundbreaking collaborative research project between AARP and Foreign Policy Group. Schurman has been featured on NBC's TODAY Show and quoted in the New York Times, HuffingtonPost, and USA Today, as well as in local and national media outlets around the world. He speaks regularly at thought leader forums around the world, and has advised national governments and major businesses on their longevity strategies.

References

  1. Johns Hopkins Medical. (2015). Article available from https://www.johnshopkinssolutions.com/article/falls-cost-u-s-hospitals-30-billion-in-direct-medical-costs/ [Accessed April 2022]
  2. Schurman B. (2022). The Super Age: Decoding Our Demographic Destiny. New York City: Harper Business
  3. King H. (2015). Article available from https://money.cnn.com/2015/10/29/technology/apple-customers/index.html [Accessed April 2022]
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