Digital twins: The future of healthcare you need to know about

Discover what "digital twins" are and how they are currently revolutionizing healthcare. The blog discusses a few of the ways digital twins are improving patient outcomes and optimizing hospital operations - written by Molly Fleet.

Have you ever come across the term "digital twin"? The concept first appeared at NASA back in 1960. The digital twin referred to was a virtual representation, or “living model” of the Apollo mission. You can imagine how useful this is when the spacecraft is, well, in space

A digital twin is a computer-generated replica of something that processes real-time data, just like Google Maps represents the Earth's surface. It is a model that reproduces an accurate representation of what it’s twinning.

But what does that have to do with healthcare? In healthcare, digital twin technology creates a virtual version of you that mimics your body's behaviour down to the molecular level. Yes, my sceptical reader, I know it sounds like science-fiction. But it’s not. This is real, and it’s happening now. 

One quick preliminary example is Babylon’s smart healthcare app. Not dissimilar to Google Maps, it lets you create a digital twin of yourself. It allows you to “switch the view from organs to muscles to skeleton, just as you may switch from satellite to terrain to street-view on Maps.”

A person using at Google Maps to plan their route for the real-time conditions.
Figure 1: A person using Google Maps to plan their route in real-time conditions.
The digital version of your body as displayed in the Babylon app.
Figure 2: The digital version of your body as displayed in the Babylon app

Trust me, this fun app only scratches the surface of what digital twin technology can do. So let’s get into it - first we’ll explore the impact of digital twins on patient outcomes. Then, I will touch on use-cases within healthcare facilities. At the end, I'll share some thoughts about the future of this technology and what it might do to the health equity gap.

Digital twins and patient outcomes

A study found that 66% of healthcare executives expect to increase their investment in digital twin technology over the next few years. This technology has shown considerable promise in the battle against a range of diseases including:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease (heart-related conditions)
  • Neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
  • Respiratory diseases, like COPD and Asthma

Digital twin technology for heart health specifically is fascinating. Human organs are extremely unique and complex, and the heart is no exception. For example, my heart chambers could be shaped a bit differently to yours, so one-size-fits-all approaches to treatment aren’t ideal. The former CTO at Philips explains: “general anatomical models based on population data do not capture the unique characteristics of your heart. A digital twin does.”

Philips launched HeartModel in 2015. It automatically generates 3D visualisations of the left heart chambers based on an individual's 2D ultrasound images. HeartModel also works out how well the heart is pumping out blood, which could be an important indicator of heart failure.

How HeartModel creates a personalized model of your heart. From
Figure 3: How HeartModel creates a personalised model of your heart.

A similar initiative is The Living Heart Project. Digital twins of the human heart allow physicians to visualise and better understand the heart's function, diagnose conditions more accurately, and predict treatment success. The Living Heart Project includes more than 150 member organisations across 24 countries. It created the first reference model of a functioning, beating heart able to reproduce most cardiovascular conditions and safely test treatment options: “doctors at top hospitals including Boston Children’s Hospital are using virtual twins as a way to plan surgical procedures with more predictable outcomes”.

One of the most exciting aspects of digital twins is their ability to improve patient education and engagement. Digital twins provide a visual representation of a person’s health data, making it easier for them to understand their health and get involved in their own care. The replicas also help healthcare providers communicate complex ideas more clearly. Doctors can present health concepts in a visual and accessible manner, bridging the knowledge gap between medical professionals and patients. This enhanced communication fosters a collaborative environment in which patients can actively participate in their care, ask questions, and express concerns more confidently. 

Dr. David Hoganson MD uses digital twin technology to teach patients and their families about their condition, saying: “Paper drawings do not do justice to the complexity of heart diseases but, until recently [we have used them] to teach a patient’s family about their condition and necessary procedures. It is much easier with a 3D model. Now parents can even put on 3D glasses and interact with holographic representations of their child’s heart.”

User wearing 3D glasses interacts with a digital model of a human heart.
Figure 4: User wearing 3D glasses interacts with a digital model of a human heart.
Parents of a child with a ventricular septal defect are helped to understand an upcoming surgery through a 3D model of his heart on a holographic 3D screen. (Image © Boston Children’s Hospital)
Figure 5: Parents of a child are helped to understand an upcoming surgery through a 3D model of his heart on a holographic 3D screen. (Image © Boston Children’s Hospital)

Digital twins and healthcare facilities

Digital twins can bring major improvements to healthcare facilities' operations. Organisations can create digital twins of entire hospitals to help manage things like bed shortages, staff schedules, and even the spread of germs. 

Digital twins in hospitals also have useful applications for clinical workflows, operations and more. They offer a holistic view of the whole system which can make staffing more efficient and reduce costs. Ever been on a ridiculously-long waiting list to get medical tests done? Digital twin technology has the power to avoid this through ensuring the continuous availability of critical medical equipment. The Cleveland Clinic has partnered with Siemens to create digital twins of their medical imaging devices, such as MRI and CT scanners. The digital twins help monitor the performance of these devices, predict potential failures, and optimise their maintenance schedules.

Saving childrens’ lives gets even more exciting. Today, many emergency departments are constantly at overflSow capacity and facing serious staffing issues. As a child, I spent hours in an emergency room mid-asthma attack and was only seen once I lost consciousness. As Dr. Fontecilla and Khandekar put it: “Imagine the possibilities a digital twin presents, in identifying blockages to patient flow, running “what-if” scenarios of where patient care could be transferred or temporarily lodged to alleviate the situation.” By creating a digital replica of the department, the hospital is able to identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies, ultimately improving patient care and reducing wait times.

A visual representations of the use-cases of digital twin technology in healthcare facilities. From
Figure 6: A visual representation of the use-cases of digital twin technology in healthcare facilities.

Digital twins and health equity

Clearly, digital twin technology has a huge potential to improve patient outcomes. However, there are health equity concerns. Striving for a balance between innovation and equal access is crucial, but achieving this is unrealistic. Digital twin tech requires massive financial resources and infrastructure which makes it inaccessible to smaller or underprivileged facilities. 

The data used to train digital twin models is often not representative of diverse populations, leading to biased predictions and less effective treatments for certain demographics. One of my favourite recent reads was "Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men" by Caroline Criado Perez. The author explains how the world is not designed with women in mind. I mentioned NASA at the start of this blog, so it feels apt to come full-circle to give an example of data bias: NASA axed its first all-female spacewalk as the International Space Station did not have enough suits that fit women. Mind-boggling, I know. 

Digital twin technology has the potential to completely revolutionise healthcare and significantly improve patient outcomes. HeartModel, The Living Heart Project, Boston Children's Hospital and Siemens demonstrate how digital twins are already making a tangible impact on various aspects of healthcare. By creating personalised and interactive visualisations of patients' health data, digital twins can enhance health outcomes and improve healthcare facilities' operations. 

However, it's crucial to ensure that this groundbreaking technology is developed and used in a way that benefits everyone. AI is only as good as the data it’s trained on, and we all know that diverse representation in data is still a pipe dream. 

How far do you think digital twin technology can or will go? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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