A recent article about how patients are using virtual worlds to cope with sickness inspired me to research how this phenomenon is impacting the practice of medicine. Browsing through the Internet, I came across multiple creative applications in which virtual worlds are finding their places in the medical profession.

Virtual worlds are online communities where users can interact. In virtual worlds, users create online identities or “avatars.” As their avatars, they are free from the boundaries of the physical realm and are bound only by the limits of “cyber life.” For example, patients limited by medical conditions can perform activities that they otherwise would not be capable of doing because of the physical restrictions imposed by a disorder. According to an October 6, 2007, washingtonpost.com article, “Real Hope in a Virtual World,” online virtual worlds can help sick people get their lives back on track; they can serve as a stepping-stone to recovery in the real world, and can provide a coping mechanism that enables the user to remain anonymous. Virtual worlds have also seen virtual lectures offered by avatar clinicians, support group meetings, fund-raisers, virtual spread of disease, and even virtual medical counseling, the article says.

Sleep apnea patients could live “virtual life” without fatigue. Living a virtual life could help the patient envision recovery. It could serve as a baby step toward the real strides that need to be taken in managing a sleep disorder. For example, a nonfatigued avatar might inspire the patients behind the characters to be compliant with CPAP so that they can live alert, refreshed lives like those represented online.

OSA patients also could share feelings about intimate subjects such as wearing a CPAP mask with their bed partner—all without having to expose their identity. Patients who are otherwise fearful of discussing such issues could do so in an anonymous forum. Sleep labs could host a virtual support group where patients can meet online without having to leave the comfort of their home, and sleep lab support staff could lead the virtual meeting.

Medical advice for real-world medical conditions also is being offered in virtual worlds like Second Life, but this is where the line is being crossed for some. Since the user’s identity cannot be readily identified and the user can masquerade as someone they are not, any medical advice that is offered has the potential of being false or risky. People also may be substituting the medical advice offered online for real medical advice.

While medical professionals are defining the role that virtual worlds play in medicine, there are bound to be failures along with the success stories. How virtual worlds will fit into medicine is not yet known, but we do know that they are being used and that this will likely continue. If you want to be ahead of the game, start taking advantage and learning about everything that the Internet can do for you. Certainly, there will be people who sit on the sideline and become “outdated” as technology outpaces them, but there will be others who will be pioneers in online medical technology. Learn as much as you can, and someday you (or your avatar) could be the “Bill Dement” of the online sleep community.

—Franklin A. Holman
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