How Digital Twins Can Drive Healthcare Transformation  

Digital twins have the potential to help manage complex healthcare campuses from ease of parking, navigation, and directions to public safety and security. (Credit: Getty Images) 

By Scott Lundstrom, Analyst, Supply Chain Futures. 

Healthcare is one of the most interesting markets when we consider the possible impacts of digital twins on traditional industry practices.  A wealth of use cases go well beyond what we find in traditional manufacturing, public sector, and process management implementations. 

Scott Lundstrom, Analyst, Supply Chain Futures

A digital twin as defined by the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) as a digital representation of some asset, process or system that is sufficient to meet the requirements of a set of use cases.  In other words, the digital twin captures the essential data to understand and improve decision-making and understanding of specific use cases, but it does not have to be a perfect, high-fidelity copy of the modeled process or assets. 

Healthcare organizations, especially academic medical centers, large pharmaceutical organizations, and public health systems have digital twin opportunities in three significant and distinct areas that can all generate substantial value in transforming quality, experience, and innovation. 

Smart Campus / Smart Buildings / Smart Resources   

Healthcare organizations all share a need to improve efficiency, throughput, and quality of care delivery while improving the patient experience. At its core, this involves matching resources to patient needs as quickly as possible to create an optimal outcome.  All healthcare providers experience resource constraints and scheduling complexity regardless of the size of the organization.  

Large academic medical centers have tremendous complexity and can be viewed as opportunities to take advantage of technologies developed for smart cities or smart campuses.  The facility itself is often a large part of the patient experience.  Simple things like ease of parking, navigation, and directions, on time appointments, imaging, pharmacy, and guest services all factor into the patient experience. 

Public safety and security for patients and staff is also an important element of the campus environment.  While hospitals are principally focused on care delivery, they are also a consumer-focused business that should strive to improve patient satisfaction in all dimensions.  There are also opportunities to improve sustainability and building efficiency through the efficient use of power, water, and reductions in carbon emissions.  

Often positive patient outcomes and experience is based on resource availability and scheduling – treatment rooms, operating theaters, ICU beds, and patient rooms are all scarce resources that must be scheduled and “turned” on a regular basis to keep things on track.  Increasing the availability of these resources can be improved with utilization models and digital twins.  An increase in availability can also drive revenue growth, increased patient satisfaction and improved outcomes. 

Traditional enterprise asset management also plays a role in creating value for digital twins.  Predictive maintenance can drive improved availability of imaging equipment, lab automation and surgical robots as well as less expensive assets.  Simply being able to locate and move devices can improve the ability to increase room turns, accelerate admissions, and improve patient outcomes. 

Many possible uses for digital twins in healthcare that go beyond the well proven abilities to improve efficiency, operations, and processes at the business level.  Digital twins also can drive improved performance in medical research, discovery, and treatment of patients as well.  While there are many ethical, technical, and medical issues to be resolved in this domain, progress is encouraging and a wide range of projects are underway. 

Patient Care and Personalized Health 

Medical devices – Managing large numbers of medical IoT devices (Internet of Medical Things – IoMT) and making productive use of the data they generate is greatly enhanced by utilizing a digital twin.  We have access to increasingly larger data sets of patient data collected by a vast array of IoMT sensors including patient generated data captured by consumer-grade wearable devices.  Digital twins can then leverage these data sets to model the impact of different therapeutics, personalized or targeted approaches to develop better — more personalized — care plans.  

Healthcare wearables will allow the collection of significant new real time data as patients go about their daily lives.  For conditions that have seemingly random occurrences this wealth of new data will provide tremendous new insight.  New sensors deployed in patient care environments can provide increased insight into personalized medicine and chronic disease management. Sensors of all types can be brought into the provider environment to improve data collection and patient care. 

Digital twins are being used to model everything from molecular interactions to patient centric models to improve the development of better care plans for patients.  Patient modeling via a digital twin will potentially allow us to consider thousands of possible causes and simulate treatment with thousands of possible therapeutics to predict the best possible path forward for treatment.  

Clinical research and trials 

Medtronic accelerated the approval of an MRI-compatible pacemaker through use of animal testing and simulation results from a mature in silico model of the heart. This dramatically shortened the time to market for this new device.  Digital twins are also gaining traction in regenerative medicine, aiding in the process of tissue generation and repair.  The use of digital twin based simulations are beginning to change the approach to early stage trials allowing rapid identification of the most promising paths for discovery. 

Creating a twin of the participants in a clinical trial allows improved compliance and information sharing with trial participants generating alerts and reminders to keep everyone up to date and on the path. Integrating IoMT devices, and telemedicine processes allows the broadening of the geographic range of trial participants, and the ease of participation while adding AI and analytics in real-time can improve insights and safety.  

Given all the possible benefits, healthcare CIO’s need to spend some time understanding the opportunities that digital twins create to improve and transform healthcare. The technical, ethical, and medical issues need to be examined and understood, but they can be overcome in many areas where improved use of real-time data can be modeled to create insight, intelligence, and improved outcomes.  

Campus and facility projects  offer a good opportunity to become familiar with the technology without confronting some of the deeper medical issues, and this will be a good place for many health CIOs to start building skills and confidence with the technology.  Once this is underway it will be easier to embrace some of the more advanced and valuable patient and treatment centric projects.  

Scott Lundstrom is an analyst focused on the intersection of AI, IoT and Supply Chains. See his blog at Supply Chain Futures.