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Digital twins and the future of healthcare

By Bipin Bhaskar, Client Partner, Digital Engineering, Persistent Systems

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Digital twins

Digital technology is synonymous with modern healthcare. From life-saving medical interventions that push the very outer reaches of medical science, to wearable lifestyle devices that monitor the number of steps you’ve walked during the day, technology – in all its forms – is increasingly playing a role in keeping us healthy.

But technology is nothing without data.

Today, much of this information – from patient records and test results – lies dormant or hard-to-reach within healthcare data silos. In many cases, important personal information – such as someone’s decision to stick to a healthy eating plan or increase their daily exercise routines – often evades capture altogether.

And yet, if you want a true picture of someone’s physiology, this data – along with everything else that’s generated during a lifetime – is vital.

But what if all this information – such as how a patient responds to a change in drug treatment – could be gathered, stored, and accessed easily?

In effect, you could create a facsimile – a picture – made up of someone’s health data as unique to that individual as their DNA. In other words, you could create a ‘digital twin’ of a patient.

Digital twins in a healthcare setting

Using information gleaned from previous tests, treatments and medical interventions, clinicians could create a digital picture of someone that would create a whole new image of an individual’s medical make-up.

And if you continually update this digital twin with real-time health-related data such as heart monitoring via an app on a smart phone, you’d have a living, breathing image of a person – albeit in digital form. It’s an exciting prospect.

The idea of a digital twin is nothing new. They started life in traditional industries where engineers created digital replicas of machines on-screen, which allowed them to carry out research and testing on a data-generated mock-up rather than the real thing.

So, it doesn’t take such a large leap of the imagination to conceive that if you can twin a machine, you can twin some parts – or all the parts – of the human body as well. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

There is a huge amount of research being carried out to test the possibilities, including creating patient-specific treatment plans based on the different physiological characteristics of an individual.

A new approach to patient care 

Creating a digital representation of human physiology would allow researchers to study the impact of diseases, drugs, and medical devices without necessarily having first to interact with a patient.

In some cases, it could even reduce – or even eliminate – the need for invasive treatments such as operations, transplants, or chemotherapy.

Although the development of this technology is still in its early stages, the real breakthrough could come from the development of personalised pharmaceuticals — a drug that is custom-made to suit an individual.

In oncology, for instance, this could limit some of the harsher side effects associated with cancer treatments by creating medicines tailored specifically to an individual’s genetic makeup.

With a digital twin, the outcomes and opportunities for improved patient care are breath-taking.

And it’s not just patients who would benefit. For those organisations involved in developing new treatments and pharmaceuticals, the use of digital twin technology could effectively bring life-saving innovations to the market in a more cost-effective, safer, and quicker way.

Ensuring the security of digital twin data

Of course, whenever you start talking about data and technology, one of the first concerns is always around security.

In other words, how do you ensure that confidential patient data is kept safe away from prying eyes while still ensuring swift and easy access for those that do need to see patient details?

This doesn’t just include the security issues facing those established hospital-sized healthcare systems responsible for processing and storing vast amounts of patient data.

It may also include ensuring that wearable items such as a fitness tracker or smartwatch are secure. It might even include devices such as a pacemaker or insulin pump.

When it comes to tech, if it contains a chip and runs on software, then there is always a threat that a potential vulnerability – however small – does exist.

That’s why, whenever we talk about how digital technology can play its part in the provision of healthcare, it is essential that robust, trustworthy security protocols are in place to ensure cyber resilience and patient confidentiality.

Progress is not without its challenges

There is another challenge that also needs to be addressed. One of the main issues for healthcare organisations is that different departments and healthcare organisations may operate on entirely different computer platforms or systems.

As noted earlier, these systems may store information in difficult-to-access silos that makes sharing data cumbersome and difficult.

While these legacy systems may have met past needs, their shortcomings are becoming increasingly apparent not just for digital twin technology – which requires information that is readily shared to create a holistic view of a patient’s care – but also other digital transformation projects.

What’s reassuring, though, is that calls for change are becoming louder. And increasingly, they’re coming from those within the healthcare sector who understand the benefits of data sharing for improving patient care.

They can see that by collating historic clinical data and combining it with real-time health information, you can turn healthcare from being something that relies on someone falling ill before you can intervene, to a preventative approach to medicine.

Not only does this improve overall care for patients, it also goes a long way to release some of the pressures that are squeezing healthcare organisations and those that work there.

And if technology and the smart use of data can do that, it must be with pursuing.

Persistent.com

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  1. Pingback: Soph.I.A unveils AI summit programme | Health Tech World

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