How 'digital twins' are harnessing IoT to advance precision medicine

More and more researchers are taking advantage of wearables to create a health baseline, where deviations from the norm can detect issues earlier, a clinician will explain at HIMSS20.
By Benjamin Harris
10:55 AM

Update: HIMSS20 has been canceled due to the coronavirus. Read more here.

Gauging a patient’s recovery status is tricky if you don’t know what they should be expected to recover to. Researchers are using data collected from patient-worn sensors, such as Apple Watch or Fitbit, to build a "digital twin" of baseline patient health information.

A digital twin is essentially like creating a backup of a patient’s physical state before a procedure, so providers know what to look for a patient to work towards in recovery, said Dr. Mohamed Rehman, a professor and clinician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, who will explain the concept in a session at HIMSS20 on March 11.

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Currently, data points such as steps, heart rate, and hours of sleep are used to monitor patients in a variety of settings, but Rehman said there are greater capabilities on the horizon.

"Once we develop the digital twin, we can use it to improve the person," he explained. "You can use it as a metric for improvement."

The ability to spot abnormalities and the health impacts they may portend is where Rehman sees the digital twin headed.

For instance, if a 30 year old patient normally takes 12000 steps a day, and gers 8 hours of sleep a night and suddenly goes to 6000 steps, and five hours of sleep, something could be seriously wrong.

A system that can track deviations from baseline can pick up issues much earlier, said Rehman.

Real-time monitoring means the possibilities for new data sources are wide. Rehman says even using a metric like time spent on social media can be valuable. If a teenager usually spends three hours a day on social media and gradually drops to an hour to 30 minutes, it could be a harbinger of problems with their mental or physical health.

The insights brought by a digital twin means that care can become more precise, targeted, and based on the most accurate and real-time personal data possible.

Rehman notes that the current paradigm relies on a doctor asking a patient how they feel. Wider use of digital twins could change this.

"When you go to the doctor, they’ll already have data off your digital twin," said Rehman – noting that wearable technology is ubiquitous and that many people are already capturing this data. Imagine if a doctor already had clues about a patient’s health before they even walked in the door.

"Today you’re giving them subjective data," he said. "This will be objective data."

Dr. Mohamed Rehman will discuss this emerging approach to personalized medicine during his HIMSS20 session, "Creating Digital Twins: Leveraging the IoMT." It's scheduled for Wednesday, March 11, from 2:30-3:30 p.m. in room W230A.

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