By Caroline Copley
HEIDELBERG, Germany (Reuters)
Armed with a mouse and computer screen instead of a scalpel and operating theater, cardiologist Benjamin Meder carefully places the electrodes of a pacemaker in a beating, digital heart
Using this “digital twin” that mimics the electrical and physical properties of the cells in patient 7497’s heart, Meder runs simulations to see if the pacemaker can keep the congestive heart failure sufferer alive – before he has inserted a knife.
The digital heart twin developed by Siemens Healthineers is one example of how medical device makers are using artificial intelligence (AI) to help doctors make more precise diagnoses as medicine enters an increasingly personalized age.
The challenge for Siemens Healthineers and rivals such as Philips and GE Healthcare is to keep an edge over tech giants from Alphabet’s Google to Alibaba that hope to use big data to grab a slice of healthcare spending.
With healthcare budgets under increasing pressure, AI tools such as the digital heart twin could save tens of thousands of dollars by predicting outcomes and avoiding unnecessary surgery.
A shortage of doctors in countries such as China is also spurring demand for new AI tools to analyze medical images and the race is on to commercialize products that could shake up healthcare systems around the world.
While AI has been used in medical technology for decades, the availability of vast amounts data, lower computing costs and more sophisticated algorithms mean revenues from AI tools are expected to soar to $6.7 billion by 2021 from $811 million in 2015, according to a study by research firm Frost & Sullivan.
The size of the global medical imaging analytics software market is also expected to jump to $4.3 billion by 2025 from $2.4 billion in 2016, said data portal Statista.
“What started as an evolution is accelerating towards more of a revolution,” said Thomas Rudolph who leads McKinsey & Company’s pharma and medical technology practice in Germany.
‘GPS OF HEALTHCARE’
For Siemens Healthineers and its traditional rivals, making the transition from being mainly hardware companies to medical software pioneers is seen as crucial in a field becoming increasingly crowded with new entrants.
Google has developed a raft of AI tools, including algorithms that can analyze medical images to diagnose eye disease, or sift through digital records to predict the likelihood of death.
Alibaba, meanwhile, hopes to use its cloud and data systems to tackle a shortage of medical specialists in China. It is working on AI-assisted diagnosis tools to help analyze images such as CT scans and MRIs. Siemens Healthineers, which was spun off from German parent Siemens in March, has outpaced the market in recent quarters with sales of medical imaging equipment thanks to a slew of new products.
But analysts say the German firm, Dutch company Philips and GE Healthcare, a subsidiary of General Electric, will all come under pressure to prove they can save healthcare systems money as spending becomes more linked to patient outcomes and as hospitals rely on bulk purchasing to push for discounts.
Siemens Healthineers has a long history in the industry. It made the first industrially manufactured X-ray machines in 1896 and is now the world’s biggest maker of medical imaging equipment.
Now, Chief Executive Bernd Montag’s ambition is to transform it into the “GPS of healthcare” – a company that harnesses its data to sell intelligent services, as well as letting smaller tech firms develop Apps feeding off its database.
As it adapts, Siemens Healthineers has invested heavily in IT. It employs some 2,900 software engineers and has over 600 patents and patent applications in machine learning.
It is not alone. Philips says about 60 percent of its research and development (R&D) staff and spending is focused on software and data science. The company said it employs thousands of software engineers, without being specific.
Experts say the success of AI in medical technology will hinge on access to reliable data, not only to create models for diagnosis but also to predict how effective treatments will be for a specific patient in the days and years to come.
“Imagine that in the future, we have a patient with all their organ functions, all their cellular functions, and we are able to simulate this complexity,” said Meder, a cardiologist at Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany who is testing Siemens Healthineers’ digital heart software.
Keep reading …