Your doctor could soon be treating your virtual twin as a digital patient

UCL's Vanessa Diaz explains why medical avatars are the way forward
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Wearable health sensors already allow doctors to remotely monitor our vitals in real time. But what if this information, together with in-hospital exams, could constantly update your virtual twin's profile in a cycle of testing and tweaking?

That's the theory behind Dr. Vanessa Diaz's work at University College London. The senior lecturer of bioengineering was principal investigator on the DISCIPULUS project, set by the European Commission, which aimed to build a roadmap towards the 'digital patient'.

This is a dynamic, virtual version of each individual created by a computer program which can run simulations of treatments to find the best course of action. First published in 2013, more than 200 researchers in Europe contributed to the roadmap.

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Diaz elegantly describes this virtual twin as simply "you and I and each one of us living inside a computer" and says that eventually what will be constructed, little by little, will be "a medical avatar".

A virtuous circle

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In Diaz's cycle of software and monitoring and treatment, in the first instance a patient arrives at hospital with, say, chest pain. This leads to the creation of a virtual you based on scans. New scans then update the virtual twin and multiple testing can take place on the avatar to determine the outcomes of various treatment plans.

The best possible, and the most specifically tailored plan, for you is then - and only then - carried out on the organ, for example on the heart. The patient is discharged along with mobile, wearables or other sensor based devices which monitor key metrics at home and continue to update the virtual twin during the recovery phase.

"We are really trying to achieve this dream of personalised medicine," said Diaz. "I would like treatment to be tailored to me and my own unique conditions. It could also help people be more proactive about their health, rather than waiting for things to happen to us, we can predict and prevent and manage diseases. That's going to be a revolution in healthcare."

Breathing life into the digital patient

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The NHS has indicated that it plans to roll out various trials of health monitoring wearables for patients, such as skin sensors for diabetics, so now it remains for the precise work of digitally modelling our bodies accurately to continue. Diaz predicts that the first stages of the digital patient will appear in the next five to ten years but that the fully modelled avatar is a "long term vision".

"We are now beginning to harness the power of computer simulations for better healthcare," she explained. "Computer power is so much more than we used to have five years ago and it will keep moving forward. We need to educate clinicians as to what they can do with computer simulations but they can see the potential.

Read this: How Google could make billions from your blood pressure

"We believe that the future of healthcare is digital healthcare. There is a huge amount of work to do. We need to make sure clinicians can trust our models, they need to be accurate and they need to be fast."

The dry but important problem remains of the sheer amount of personal data involved in creating medical avatars detailing everything about our current and future health. A health insurance company, for instance, would no doubt be very interested in accessing the virtual twins of its customers.

One recent KPMG study found that 74% of people in the UK would share health data from wearables with their GP but only 8% would share it with a private company.

"Data protection is a key issue," admitted Diaz. "Data sharing is another issue. And we are not talking about a monolithic approach because we don't believe in that. We believe that these models have to be interoperable. We are not talking about the new Google developing one system, absolutely not."

There's also the Elysium problem. "We are very aware of this. So it has to be managed wisely. We need to make sure this doesn't go in a direction where very few people who have access to a lot of wonderful technologies and get much better healthcare than others."

Dr. Vanessa Diaz was speaking at RE.WORK's Future of Technology Summit in London on 25 September.

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She now works for Wired.

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