Virtual Care in a Virtual World

Kathryn Mackenzie, for HealthLeaders Media, July 29, 2008

Earlier this year Palomar Pomerado Health gained national attention when it created a virtual version of its planned $773 million "hospital of the future." Though the real world hospital is still years from being completed, hospital officials say they found the perfect platform to show off its state-of-the-art technology in the Second Life virtual world.

Second Life—a 3-D virtual world created by its "residents"—opened to the public in 2003. Since then it has grown explosively and now is inhabited by more than 14 million residents from around the world who interact with each other in a variety of virtual social situations and buy, sell, and trade goods with other residents using something called a Linden dollar, which can be converted to U.S. dollars at online Linden dollar exchanges. In fact, Second Life administrators say the virtual world's marketplace currently supports millions of U.S. dollars in monthly transactions.

Orlando Portale, PPH's chief technology and innovation officer, saw Second Life as an opportunity to show patients what they can expect when the hospital opens in 2011, and within six months of his arrival at the system, PPH had signed a deal with IT networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. to create Palomar Medical Center West.

A virtual receptionist appearing via Cisco TelePresence technology, which uses high-definition video and spatial audio, welcomes visitors to Palomar Medical West. From reception, potential future patients can visit new operating rooms equipped with robotics technology and functional imaging systems capable of supporting any number of medical procedures.

The virtual hospital also uses bracelets enabled with radio frequency identification technology that help guide virtual patients around the hospital by calling elevators and sending them to the appropriate rooms. Hospital executives say they are using the Second Life world as a sort of testing ground to help determine whether they will use RFID technology at the real-life hospital.

Since PPH became the first virtual hospital in the U.S. to open in Second Life, a number of other healthcare organizations have followed in their footsteps. Earlier this month Cigna Healthcare created a virtual environment that offers educational seminars about how Second Life residents can improve their health. The Cigna Virtual Healthcare Community is an island where users can walk through 3-D interactive displays with their avatars (a computer user's representation of himself or herself), play educational games, listen to seminars on nutrition and health, and receive virtual health consultations.

IBM has also gotten in on the Second Life action with the debut of its 3-D virtual healthcare island designed to show visitors the role information technology will play in global healthcare delivery. Starting from the patient's "home" they can create their own Personal Health Record and watch as it is incorporated into an array of Electronic Medical Record systems that can be used at various medical facilities. Visitors can also tour the island's hospital, lab, pharmacy, and clinic.

Reaction to healthcare organizations spending time and money on creating these virtual healthcare offerings has been mixed. There are those who think the technology signals the next evolutionary phase of the Internet. What better way to get patients excited about your multi-million dollar project than to allow them to use the hospital's services before it's even built? On the other hand, the case has been made that engaging in the virtual universe is nothing more than adults playing at children's games. In perusing various articles about developing healthcare on Second Life, I came across more negative comments than positive from readers who generally seem to agree that Second Life is little more than a cyber-toy.

What do you think? Does healthcare have a future in the virtual world?

Kathryn Mackenzie is technology editor of HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

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