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MIT Technology Review

Technology approaches for risk diagnosis and disease prevention

Quicker office visits and more bureaucracy have doctors employing new methods to improve patient care.

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As technologies will illuminate new dimensions of patient health, they create new approaches to pre-symptomatic prevention, early diagnosis, personalized treatment, and home monitoring. Invisible factors and hidden causes become more and more apparent in the routine practice of care. However, to prevent disease, virtual models and simulation are required to help practitioners turn complex data into actionable information.

New ways to prevent: While traditional decision models require a high level of expertise and include only a few clinical factors, recent advances in machine learning—when associated with proper scientific knowledge and good medical understanding—support the use of prediction models based on numerous factors, such as those generated with recent imaging and genomics. These new models may guide personalized recommendations for patients that take into account their individual risk of developing specific diseases.

New ways to diagnose: The convergence of high-definition technologies is leveraged in neurosurgery, where brain imaging is coupled with functional electro-physiology and per-surgery investigation in the operating room. Anatomic models enriched by simulation help define the pathologic zone to be resected, for instance, in the case of epilepsy patients. Virtual twins of patients may help guide the surgical plan in orthopedics by predicting the functional outcome. This new way of prescribing based on a predicted patient outcome—which is nearly impossible today—will increase safety and help patients better understand medical decisions before they undergo surgery.

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New ways to cure: Virtual reality is advancing as a new treatment modality—evidenced by 3D printing, which is developing to provide a range of personalized applications in the health-care sector. Applications are currently limited to prosthetics, pre-surgery anatomical models, and custom surgical tools manufacturing. However, by 2030, the technology could be used to print prescription drugs or 3D print new tissues or organs based on a 3D model of a patient’s own organs. Based in Paris and Boston, Biomodex already exemplifies these new possibilities: this startup company provides 3D printed anatomical models to help surgeons prepare for complex and difficult surgeries. The idea is that personalized 3D printed models enable physicians to gain a better understanding of the patient’s unique anatomy and better plan complex procedures. Organ imaging, via an MRI or scanner, generates data that is used to create a virtual 3D model of that organ, which can then be printed using a 3D printer. While bio-printed 3D organs may emerge as a future game changer, 3D printing will first be used for the personalization of implanted medical devices, such as dental and orthopedic prostheses. The technology is not yet mature to produce an entire organ, but 3D bio-printers that use nanotechnology can already print live skin-based organs within hours and opens to powerful skin care applications. A survey from a 2014 Frost & Sullivan report shows that 71% of citizens think that on-demand 3D printed organs will directly impact their health.

New ways for care at home: Patient benefits may be maximized at home by reducing the risk of various hospital-related complications, such as infection decubitus complications and loneliness. Home care delivery requires a complex infrastructure and network more easily organized in new health-care platforms able to collect patient data, diagnose, link patients and medical professionals, and monitor treatments for safety and efficacy.

Dassault Systèmes’ “Living Heart”  project provides a powerful example of how virtual universes will allow the radical improvement of the health experience. When the project was launched nearly five years ago, it was founded on the belief that a digital health transformation must have the patient playing the central role. The company reimagined a health-care system far beyond today’s paper and electronic records—instead taking the power of the virtual world to capture the best understanding of the body and combining it with a finely tuned ability to perceive subtle details in a 3D world. The project has connected leading researchers worldwide to create digital twins of a complete, beating, human heart. The model has already been used around the world to test a range of medical devices and to reproduce known disease conditions, blood flow disorders, and adverse drug effects. Combining 3D models with real-world medical data yields a powerful foundation for guiding new device designs and optimizing complex surgical procedures.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set a goal to create a population of 3DEXPERIENCE twins—models which replicate the real-world experiences of a population and reveal how a group of patients will react to new devices. The hope is that, linked with a comprehensive digital assessment of safety and performance outcomes, innovation will accelerate and regulatory burden will lessen. One day, this approach may be translated into a patient record where the complexity of your clinical data is seamlessly combined with accurate virtual reality representations of your body. This data will be hosted in the cloud, securely under your control, and accessible anywhere—from your mobile phone to the offices and surgical suites of your health-care team.

Workforce of the future

The physicians, nurses, and professionals who provide direct patient care are essential to the success of the health-care system. While nations and policymakers are developing educational programs to maintain the right number of skilled people, practicing is a key aspect of health-care training. Pragmatic and manual skills are learned by experience, therefore, 3D and virtual worlds could play a role in scaling and extending current capacities. The increase in, and rapid evolution of, knowledge is less compatible with traditional learning materials, such as textbooks, which are being replaced by online knowledge services to access the right information at the right time.

Professionals are facing less time with patients, more time for bureaucracy, and more complex care activities for dependent and aging populations with multiple concurrent pathologies. According to a 2017 report by G. Irving, one measure of these changes is the average duration of a consultation, which is constantly decreasing. In 18 countries representing about 50% of the global population, patients spend five minutes or less with their primary care physician. Fragmentation of the care processes across multiple organizations and professionals requires enablers of good communication. On the new collaborative platforms of care, every caretaker can share a holistic vision of their patients, create a relationship of listening and trust with patients, share patient-defined objectives of care, and make ethical decisions collectively. Health care is thus becoming a continuous and fluid journey, empowering practitioners and professionals to deliver the best health experience to patients and citizens.

Discover more about the future of health care in Dassault Systèmes’ new e-book.