Digital twins sound like science fiction, but they are very much real. And they’re making headway in the healthcare sector. In short, this technology allows us to create a virtual representation of a physical object or system. The options have expanded during recent years to include large items such as buildings, factories, and even people.
This article takes a deep dive into the digital twins technology. You'll discover what a digital twin is, and how they are being used in different industries. And more importantly, you will learn more about the role of digital twins in the healthcare industry, as well as find out three future-thinking startups that are shaping this landscape.
Understanding Digital Twins and Their Use Across Industries
Digital twins have come a long way. The term digital twin in the present context was first used by John Vickers of NASA in 2002. But digging a bit deeper, will show that the concept itself is much older. It was first applied in the 1970s during the Apollo XIII space program. NASA scientists needed to work with machines in outer space where it’s almost impossible to be physically present and these virtual representations were extremely helpful.
IBM describes digital twins as the virtual representation of a physical object or system across its life-cycle. It uses real-time data and other sources to enable learning, reasoning, and dynamically recalibrating for improved decision making. In short, they are highly complex digital models that are the exact counterpart, or twin, of a physical thing. These ‘things’ could be a car, a tunnel, a bridge, or a person.
Digital twin technology acts as a bridge between the physical and the digital world. By using sensors to measure a physical asset by allowing scientists and engineers to collect a wealth of data that can be mapped into a virtual model. This data-charged model can be analyzed to offer crucial information about how the physical thing will respond to the real world. A digital twin helps understand not only how a product or system is currently performing, but also how it may perform in the future.
Beyond testing the viability of a project, digital twins help with maintenance operations as well. A proposed fix for a piece of equipment can be tested on a digital twin before applying the fix to the physical item. In fact, manufacturing is the leading industry with live applications of digital twin technologies. For a deeper look, this case study by Deloitte outlines the application in manufacturing while this case study by EY analyzes different use cases within the automotive industry.
Forbes notes that digital twins empower companies to learn more, faster and break down old boundaries surrounding product innovation, complex life-cycles, and value creation.
Digital Twins in Healthcare
The use of digital twins in the healthcare industry is revolutionizing clinical processes and hospital management by enhancing medical care with digital tracking and advancing modeling of the human body.
Let’s take this case study by Challenge that explores the different use cases of digital twins in healthcare as an example. By creating a digital twin of a hospital, stakeholders can review the operational strategies, capacities, staffing, and care models to determine what actions to take and plan for future challenges. A digital twin can assist in bed shortages, controlling staff schedules, and operating rooms. Access to this information will help optimize patient care, cost, and performance. Digital Twins can virtualize the hospital in order to create a safe environment that tests the influences of changes on system performance without risks. This is important in healthcare as it enables informed strategic decisions to take place in a highly complex and sensitive environment.
The technology can also be used for modeling an individual’s genetic makeup, physiological characteristics, and lifestyle to create personalized medicine. It has a more individualized focus than precision medicine which typically focuses on larger sample groups. The goal of digitizing the human body and creating fully functioning replicas of its internal systems is to enhance medical care and patient treatment - Dassault’s Living Heart project was the first realistic virtual model of a human organ. The use of digital twins in modeling organs has multiple benefits for doctors such as discovering undeveloped illnesses, experimenting with treatments, and improving preparation for surgeries
Read on to explore specific use cases offered by leading healthcare startups.
Digital Twin Startups Revolutionizing Healthcare
Virtonomy is shortening the time-to-market for medical devices, accelerating medical innovation, and significantly reducing costs. Their digital clinical trial solution is based on a comprehensive database of patients that reflects anatomical variability, demographic diversity, and pathological conditions.
Virtonomy helps medical device manufacturers in the various phases of the product life cycle from the conceptual stage over pre-clinical evaluation to post-market surveillance. By using digital twins, the manufacturers can better understand the target anatomy, find the optimal fit of the device to treat the maximum number of patients, identify the right in-vivo model, and improve clinical trials by proper sub-population selection.
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Unlearn.AI is advancing a platform to accelerate clinical trials for Alzheimer's Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and other complex diseases. By leveraging historical datasets and disease-specific machine-learning models, Unlearn generates virtual placebo patients created from actual patient baseline data in clinical studies. This approach increases trial power and confidence, accelerates trial timelines, and enables patient-level insights which in turn reduces the time to develop new medicines.
Currently, Unlearn.AI is using machine learning for comprehensive forecasting of Alzheimer's Disease progression. Most approaches to machine learning from electronic health data can only predict a single endpoint. The ability to simultaneously simulate dozens of patient characteristics is a crucial step towards personalized medicine for Alzheimer's Disease.
Babylon Health aims to provide accessible, affordable healthcare by combining AI with doctors. Babylon has developed the Healthcheck app, which lets users understand their current health state and how it might change in the future. After users respond to a questionnaire about lifestyle and family history, the AI-powered app creates a Digital Twin to let users get insights about their current health and risk factors for future conditions along with practical recommendations for staying healthy.
Beyond the use of Digital Twins, Babylon also helps users get reliable medical advice, make appointments with qualified doctors, send prescriptions electronically to a pharmacy, and offer easy access to doctor's notes and recordings of video appointments online.
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