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From predictive AI to the presence of AI within disease pathways, turning data into actionable insight is already playing a key role in healthcare today. In this interview, Andre Hartung, President of Diagnostic Imaging at Siemens Healthineers, explains the importance of digitalization and how AI is transforming healthcare with a focus on radiology.

Which areas of healthcare are seeing the greatest transformation through AI?

On a global level, the healthcare industry currently faces various challenges. In radiology, more and more procedures and imaging tests are being done.

In emerging countries, basic healthcare infrastructures are steadily improving and becoming more accessible. In countries like Germany and the USA, procedures are steadily increasing partly due to ageing populations and the onset of chronic diseases.

The number of professionals in radiology, however, isn’t keeping up with growing demand. This means that solutions are needed to do more with less.

That’s where AI plays a transformative role. In medical imaging, pattern recognition and the application of AI to digital data is already established to some degree. The first impacts of AI-driven diagnosis on CT, MR and X-ray medical images can already be seen.

I believe this is indispensable. Only with AI are healthcare professionals able to keep pace with large workloads and administrative routine tasks while maintaining a very high standard and level of quality.

Take the high-resolution CT of a chest scan, for instance. A radiologist could easily have up to 2,000 images to look at. While maintaining a high level of quality, the use of AI speeds up this reading process significantly and helps to decrease the risk of missing an important finding.

From patient pathways to overall processes, the need for solutions that take administrative burdens away from healthcare professionals so that they can focus on what really matters – the patient – exists across the entire continuum of healthcare.

How present is AI throughout the healthcare process (a patient’s first visit, examination, diagnosis, monitoring, treatment, etc.)?

Nowadays, certain digital technologies are already in place and impacting the interaction between healthcare professionals and patients.

Covid-19 has accelerated virtual consultations between patients and physicians, allowing physicians to get a very good indication of whether a patient needs to come in for further diagnostic steps.

Meanwhile, patients are becoming more educated and playing an active role in their healthcare processes. With many technologies available for patients to insert their symptoms and inform themselves, they can get initial indications of what could be wrong.

In wanting to better understand the choices they have and alternative treatments, patients are also showing increasing ownership of care. I believe they’ll become increasingly important in the decision-making process and in the selection of their preferred provider.

Patient streams are also seeing process improvements and gaining efficiency. Intelligent digital technologies today can ensure that patients are informed via an app on their mobile phone when and where to be at the hospital for their imaging test.

Meanwhile, our imaging devices are becoming more and more intelligent, with AI providing useful support. As a reading aid for radiologists, our AI-Rad Companion¹ supports them in their diagnosis by providing structured access to information that’s specific to a particular patient. Our AI-Pathway Companion¹ also supports clinicians in terms of therapy and treatment decisions.

Another way that AI is being used is in the automation processes and documentation of clinical procedures. This ensures that billing processes are done efficiently and effectively.

AI can also be seen within disease pathways. Take stroke management for instance, where delivering the right patient to the right hospital in a timely manner is extremely important, as the patient’s outcome depends on speed.

Digital technologies and AI could be used in this context more holistically, for example, if sensors identified what was wrong with a stroke patient and triggered an alarm which then informed the hospital – ultimately speeding up the healthcare process.

In the future, I can imagine there being CT in ambulance vehicles so that a diagnosis could already be made on a patient in the ambulance vehicle. This would make a big difference in terms of treating the patient and bringing them to the right specialized center.

What are the key benefits and challenges of digital transformation for healthcare institutions?

What needs to be understood is that change and transformational speed in healthcare institutions isn’t the same as in other industries (e.g. consumer-related industries).

Healthcare is a heavily regulated environment; the demands are rigorous and very specific. The regulations can moreover differ from country to country.

As much as hospitals and clinics may be keen on using AI technologies for informed decision making, these technologies must always be validated in clinical studies. By doing so, healthcare institutions gain a solid understanding of what the transformation will be and if it will do good for the patient, ultimately leading the patient to a better situation.

At the same time, it’s not a matter of whether digitalization will bring improvements to healthcare, as a digital-first mindset is already here and here to stay. Essentially, digitalization in healthcare is the key enabler in providing high-value patient care.

What additional training should radiologists consider in order to make the most of digital transformation and AI tools?

I think of radiologists as navigators. They will continue to play a fundamental role in terms of understanding the full context, being at the core of decision making in alignment with their clinical colleagues, and ultimately determining the right next step for a patient.

In this way, I don’t think radiologists have to become IT specialists or data scientists. Ideally, radiologists will work in an autonomous fashion and the tools they’re using are developed and embedded in their workflows such that specific training isn’t needed.

Still, the potential for change management and enabling capabilities shouldn’t be underestimated. As with many other industries, a growth mindset and being able to work in a more interdisciplinary way can be very useful.

Where do you see digitalization and AI in healthcare in the next 5-10 years? Which areas are still open for significant transformation?

As I can’t think of any fields in healthcare which wouldn’t benefit from AI, I think it has great potential in shaping the future of healthcare.

As previously mentioned, it is already making a significant impact in terms of speeding up critical workflows and catching important findings which would have otherwise been missed.

In the years to come, I envision that we will increasingly think along disease pathways and the optimization of patient outcomes. Digital solutions will continue to support healthcare institutions with informed decision making and the optimization of workflows for certain diseases.

I also see AI being used in a predictive fashion, for instance in the form of a personal digital twin. A digital twin is a personalized, computerized model of a patient, allowing a healthcare professional to compare a patient’s data with that of other patients with similar conditions.

By simulating in advance how an organ will respond to a procedure or treatment, digital twins can help physicians when it comes to making informed, safe and accurate predictions prior to the treatment of a patient.

From my point of view, predictive AI is already an important research field today. It will continue to develop even further and really hit the market in the next 5-10 years.

¹ Disclaimer: AI-Pathway Companion and AI-Rad Companion consists of several products that are (medical) devices in their own right, and products under development. AI-Pathway Companion and AI-Rad Companion are not commercially available in all countries. Future availability cannot be ensured. Please contact your local Siemens Healthineers organization for further details.

As the President of Diagnostic Imaging at Siemens Healthineers, Andre Hartung drives the digital transformation of radiology to improve patient care and provide better outcomes with increased efficiency. Follow him on LinkedIn for more insights.

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