By: Beverly Bell & Rajesh Jaluka
The saying “Houston, we have a problem” long ago became part of everyday discourse. Less widely known, however, is a technique inspired by NASA’s Apollo 13 mission that stands to influence healthcare.
In April 1970, 210,000 miles away from Earth, an oxygen tank exploded on Apollo 13, threatening the lives of the astronauts on board.
Fortunately, in training for the mission, NASA used several simulators to prepare the crew.
So, when the SOS call came in, mission control turned to the simulators to match the conditions of the aircraft and find a solution to bring the astronauts home safely.
The NASA equipment might not have been digital, but technologists are finding new applications for the idea of a simulator.
Digital twins are highly accurate and integrated models that can simulate the performance (and potential failings) of the system they are based on.
Over the last few decades, the healthcare industry has made great strides toward a digital-first future. And now, with increased ease of access to digital records and advances in artificial intelligence, patients could soon have digital twins of their own.
These models could draw on our medical information (blood type, eye color, height, weight, x-rays, MRI results and more) and non-medical data (lifestyle data from fitness apps, phone and social media usage) to produce a digital representation of the entire person, their health and their behaviors.
Such a twin would be a game changer across the healthcare industry for providers, payors and patients, as well as pharmaceutical companies.
Below, we’ll explore some of the potential applications of digital twins for healthcare, and what they might mean for different actors across the sector.
Digital twins for providers
From a physician’s perspective, one of the most impactful applications of digital twins would be the ability to deliver more precise medical treatments for each person under their care.
For example, if you know that your female patient has inherited harmful BRAC genes—specifically, the variant BRCA1 (versus BRCA2)—steps can be taken to reduce the risk of cancer or aid early detection.
Moreover, combining a digital cadaver with virtual reality could create a three-dimensional digital twin for students to practice procedures on. Even seasoned surgeons could use these twins to master their techniques or try alternative strategies for complex and risky procedures.
Digital twins for payors
With the current emphasis on improving health equity across the delivery ecosystem, digital twins could help reduce treatment costs and lower insurance premiums.
Complications and mortality rates are high in the months following surgery,1 but a prognostic scoring based on body mass index, known drug intolerances, comorbidities and more could help to predict mortality—and therefore minimize risk.
Beyond prognostic scoring, digital twins for healthcare could help tailor the surgery plan and postoperative care. Insurance companies rely on hundreds of indicators to calculate risk and arrive at premiums for their plans. With digital twins, they could target high-risk areas, sponsor studies to find solutions that might lower those risks, and champion widespread adoption to drive the risk and costs even lower.