Your digital twin – can it improve the future you?

highway at night

The digital twin may seem like science fiction but it’s now an alternative method of predicting possible issues through real-time or near real-time replicas of objects, locations or people. This powerful digital tool is gaining ground in healthcare for predicting outcomes to a medical intervention and providing insight on treatment options.

The concept of a digital twin is not new and came to life in the U.S. space program decades ago. When potentially disastrous issues occurred on the Apollo 13 in 1970, NASA was able to intervene thanks to a physical and digital twin model of the shuttle. The model enabled engineers to test possible solutions from earth and offer lifesaving guidance to the crew in space. Nearly 50 years later, with the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) and augmented/virtual reality technology, the digital twin has become an invaluable and cost-effective business tool across multiple industries.

In fact, according to IDC, by 2020, 30 percent of G2000 companies will be using data from advanced digital twins to drive greater success with product innovations. Many industries, such as mining, oil and gas, and transport and retail are already using this technology to monitor assets and flow.

In healthcare, digital twins have the potential to improve patient safety and health outcomes, and ensure patients receive treatments best suited to their specific needs. For example, rather than simply reading patient notes, a doctor visualizes your digital twin – overlaid with all the relevant data about you including clinical, administrative and social – to assess what impact various types of intervention will have on you. The doctor could then run simulations on drugs, drug dosage or even new procedures and assess your reaction in a digital world, reducing the risk to you as a patient in the real world.

Digital twin technologies available today

One company that has been putting these capabilities into practice is Siemens, which is using the digital twin to get a better understanding of a patient’s health status and then predict various things, such as disease evolution or which interventions might work best for a particular patient. A good example is the use of the digital twin in cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT), which is essentially a pacemaker used to improve the heart’s rhythm. The digital twin of the heart brings together AI and modelling to help physicians first know where best to place the electrodes. As the digital twin is updated with the sensor data, it guides the physician to the best location to place the device.

Similarly, Philips is working to build biophysical models of patients by drawing on their medical data. Using the patient’s digital twin, a physician can connect the data to similar cases to determine which therapy will have the best possible outcome for the patient. For even greater precision, before surgery goes ahead, the physician can simulate various procedural scenarios on the digital twin and select the approach that will have the most optimal result. During the surgery itself, the procedure and potential unexpected situations are processed into the digital twin so issues can be dealt with immediately.

Besides providing clinical value to patients and their doctors, the digital twin has operational benefits too, such as optimizing workflow. By using patient data in the hospital, users can simulate a workflow in a ward. For example, using many data points in a hospital ward, we can see how patients, staff and equipment are being used, allowing identification of inefficiencies in certain workflows.  Similarly, the Mater Private Hospital in Ireland was able to identify efficiency gains in certain wards by 32 percent along with opportunities for staff overtime reduction by 15 minutes; and for patient wait-time reduction by 34 minutes. They achieved these with minimal disruption to the day-to-day activities as the simulation could be run on a computer rather than involving the actual staff.

From simulations in space to the workings of the human heart or the optimization of a hospital workflow, the digital twin is more than a “gimmick,” it is a powerful, affordable and efficient tool that can transform life and business-critical processes and procedures. As other digital tools continue to advance – IoT, artificial intelligence and cloud – the scope for the digital twin will expand accordingly. The possibilities are only limited by your own imagination.


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