German Chancellor Angela Merkel was very interested in the digital twin1 of the heart.
When it comes to digital transformation, artificial intelligence (AI) is a key technology. It has enormous potential, not least in the medical sector where algorithms are driving the transition to precision medicine in the areas of prevention, diagnostics, and treatment.
Photos: Axel Schmidt
In terms of digitalization, Europe is lagging behind. AI is one of the ways it can catch up: That was the core message at the German government’s Digital Summit in Nuremberg. The government used the Summit to present its new AI strategy. Besides expressing a commitment to Europe’s competitiveness in digital innovation, the strategy calls for AI to be used for the public good, and for a broad social dialogue to anchor it ethically, legally, and culturally.
Improved treatment planning thanks to a “digital twin”
Below this political-economic macro-level the specific question that arises is how AI applications will change different industries. “Medical technology is on a similar path to progress as Industry 4.0. We are already talking about Healthcare 4.0 or the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). The fact that medical technology as a topic of the future is now part of the German government’s Digital Summit is therefore all the more pleasing,” said Michael Sen, Chairman of Siemens Healthineers.
“Medical technology is on a similar path to progress as Industry 4.0. We are already talking about Healthcare 4.0 or the Internet of Medical Things.”
“There’s an ur-moment in medicine, the dialogue between physician and patient,” said CEO Bernd Montag, describing the idea associated with the widespread use of smart algorithms in the healthcare industry. “Our vision is that this ur-moment will encompass all the medical knowledge that’s available, thanks to the use of digital assistants.”
The “digital twin”1 of the heart, developed by Siemens Healthineers in collaboration with the cardiology department of the University of Heidelberg and other partners, was one of the three showcase exhibits at the Digital Summit. It was explained to Chancellor Angela Merkel, Federal Minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier and Minister-President of Bavaria Markus Söder by Michael Sen and Bernd Montag.
This tool holds large amounts of individual health data and could be used for diagnosis and treatment, as well as for disease prevention. At the Summit in Nuremberg, Montag demonstrated how the simulated heart can show the electrical conduction system of the individual patient using anatomical and functional data as well as self-learning algorithms. “In the future, for example, this can be used to test the effects of pacemaker electrodes prior to implantation, and thus plan pacemaker therapy with much greater precision,” Montag stressed.
“This tool can be used to test the effects of pacemaker electrodes prior to implantation, and thus plan pacemaker therapy with much greater precision.”
The Internet of Medical Things demands trust
Professor Joachim Hornegger, President of the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and expert in pattern recognition, also believes AI algorithms are a critical tool for ensuring “more precise” medicine in the future. “Thanks to artificial intelligence not all patients are treated in the same way anymore; instead treatments can be tailored to the individual patient. AI will not make people live forever, but at least they will be healthier,” he said.
“AI will not make people live forever, but at least they will be healthier.”
In the future, “digital twins” could be created not only for the heart, but also for other organs, or ultimately for whole humans, fed by countless sources of data from an IoMT that integrates images, environmental and behavioral information, laboratory values, and other data. This would require, among other things, a legal framework that creates confidence in the technology and its security, Hornegger said.
The Federal Ministry of Health is currently working intensively on this very issue, said Parliamentary State Secretary Thomas Gebhart, who is responsible for digitalization. An existing law sets out the legal requirements for electronic patient records. It is intended that telemedicine will also be given a legal basis. At the same time, his ministry is supporting several projects that deal specifically with the use of AI in medicine. “But we will only be successful if we succeed in creating acceptance among the population. We must ensure that the patient retains control over his or her data,” said Gebhart.
“We will only be successful if we succeed in creating acceptance among the population.”
Platforms for a secure data exchange
From the perspective of industry, Stefan Vilsmeier, founder and CEO of Brainlab, a company that develops image- and computer-assisted surgery and radiotherapy technologies, expressed the concern that there was insufficient political will to promote digitalization. For that reason, platforms for an efficient and secure data exchange are hugely important for an IoMT suffused with AI applications. But it is precisely with regard to these platforms that Europe lags far behind the USA and China.
In this context, Vilsmeier explicitly welcomed the announcement by the German government that it would team up with European partners to launch a kind of digital Airbus project. This project aims at creating a European digital champion that can keep pace with US-American and Chinese corporations in terms of digital platforms and AI applications. “We need safe, transparent and liberal access to health data and need to establish the technical prerequisites for that. If the European platforms do not become competitive even progress in AI will not help us,” said Vilsmeier.