The metaverse hype arrives in digital health

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Who owns your simulation in the metaverse?

Will the metaverse transform health care? Who knows! But even before we know what the metaverse is — today, it loosely describes future immersive computing experiences — its hype has arrived in digital health. Respected doctors are writing thinkpieces, and new marketing language has infiltrated startups, with one company already touting “the virtual treatment rooms of the metaverse.”


Investors looking for the next big thing are asking questions, which is why Rock Health’s advisory arm mined metaverse insights for its clients. The topline shows that while investors might have metaverse FOMO, they’re not big on the precursor tech just yet: In 2021, AR and VR health care tools raked in $198 million across 11 deals, less than 1% of digital health funding for the year.

Rock Health identified two main areas of metaverse-like innovation: VR or AR applications, and so-called digital twin tech, which creates virtual representations of real-world biology, like a digital copy of a heart. All this tech has undeniable potential, and some of it has even earned regulatory clearance and clinical validation. But aside from the marketing value, what’s the point of shoehorning innovation into a metaverse box?


Adriana Krasniansky, a researcher at Rock Health, told STAT that even if metaverse concepts are nascent, it’s not too soon to start thinking about the potential implications for privacy and regulation, where the early movers will have the power to define norms. Before someone’s running experiments on your virtual biology, it might be useful to know: who owns your simulation?

Insurer lobby wades into privacy talks

The country’s most powerful lobbying group is finally weighing in on a national debate about patient data privacy. This week the America’s Health Insurance Plans —  whose members include heavyweights like Anthem and Humana — said it supports extending HIPAA or other privacy restrictions to any third-party groups that collect, use or store consumers’ health data.

AHIP says its goal is to ensure app developers are held to the  rigorous privacy standards, especially when they say more patients are opting to share claims and clinical data. “It’s [patients’] choice about what they do with their data. Having said that, it shouldn’t be a buyer beware environment and patients really should have the backing of a strong federal law behind it,” said Deven McGraw, who formerly led privacy at HHS’ Office for Civil Rights, which enforces HIPAA. McGraw now heads data stewardship for the Ciitizen Platform, which helps patients collect and share health data, at InvitaeMohana has the full story.

Speaking of health data privacy…

Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) introduced a bill Wednesday that would establish a new health and privacy commission to make recommendations to Congress on updating privacy laws. “HIPAA must be updated for the modern day,” said Cassidy, who is a physician.

…Elsewhere on the Hill, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) proposed a measure that would extend Medicare payments for certain telehealth services, like substance use treatment, for two years following the Covid-19 emergency period. It would also commission a study to inform future virtual care legislation.

How often older people use apps to track health

Health execs and entrepreneurs will sometimes remark that we underestimate older people, many of whom can capably use apps to manage their health. Consider this: A report from University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging says that 28% percent of people 50 to 80 use at least one health app. Drilling down on people with type 2 diabetes that used these apps, only 28% did so to track their blood sugar and 14% to track medication. About half said they’d be interested in tracking blood sugar or medication with an app, but don’t. (The authors said their 2,110 person sample is nationally representative, but don’t report detailed demographics.)

With those numbers in mind, there’s a question of whether app makers should be trying harder to reach older people.

A major digital pharmacy merger and more deals

Health tech companies Thirty Madison and Nurx, which both make it easy for consumers to see a doctor virtually and get a prescription delivered to their door, announced they would merge. As the market for such startups matures, they’re ditching their identities as direct-to-consumer digital pharmacies and increasingly repositioning themselves as comprehensive specialty care. Showing they can drive outcomes could be the key to landing lucrative deals with health plans and employers. Mario has the whole story.

In other business news:

  • Ada Health, which makes a symptom self-assessment tool, completed its $120 million Series B round with a $30 million extension round from Farallon Capital, Red River West, and Bertelsmann Investments.
  • Amazon Care announced a nationwide expansion of its health clinics, as it scales up both virtual and in-person services in cities around the country.
  • Doximity announced it acquired physician scheduling site Amion, for $53.5 million in cash plus up to $29 million in earnouts and equity compensation over four years.
  • Virtual musculoskeletal care company Sword Health appointed Vijay Yanamadala as chief medical officer.

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Source: STAT