Historically, it has been found that Black patients experiencing chronic pain are given less medication or pain relief that may not be as effective as compared to white patients who are also suffering from chronic pain. Previous studies also showed that Black patients, in comparison to Black patients, were less likely to be prescribed with the necessary or sufficient opioids for them to cope with acute pain developed from fractured arms or surgery recoveries.

Dr. Adam T. Hirsh, Director of Pain Research Laboratory and Associate Professor of Psychology at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) is now leading a new research study looking into racial disparities in pain care. He and his team had chosen to focus on lower back pain, one of the most common types of chronic pain which affects patients over a prolong period of time with no known cause. Dr. Hirsh said the relationship between chronic pain and opioid prescription has generally been under-studied, let alone the racial aspect of it, which is even less understood.

What the research team realized was white physicians with higher intergroup anxiety scores (i.e., which means they are less comfortable interacting with individuals that are less similar as themselves) were more likely to recommend opioid treatment to Black patients with chronic pain but less likely to refer them to pain specialist or other non-opioid treatments that require additional persuasion or explanation.

A digital copy of patients and organs for training

Dr. Hirsh believes this may be a result of self-selected segregation; in present-day society, most of us still prefer to mingle with others who look like us and we lack experiences in dealing with others who are different from us. As such, he pioneers in using virtual or computer-simulated patients to minimize racial discrepancies in the context of pain care because it is challenging to isolate the impact of race in real-life as it either confound or be influenced by other factors.

Yet, the use of computer-simulated patients may filter out these unnecessary elements and lead to a more accurate change of attitude since patients’ characteristics would be standardized and only race is changed. Dr. Hirsh hopes that these computer-simulated patients will train care providers to be more aware of their comfort level in dealing with patients from a different racial or demographic background. At the same time, creates more opportunities for them to interact with these patients.

The use of a digital copy in training is not something new. In fact, AIMed reported “seeing double” may be the future when Siemens Healthineers showcased its digital twin of heart at Arab Health last year as physicians can now “visit the same patient twice”: once via the use of digital twin for feedback and the other on the actual patient for better diagnosis and treatment. A cardiac research program called ECHOES led by Frank Rademakers of University Hospitals Leuven, in Belgium also shared a similar mindset.

Simulation of treatments for better outcomes

ECHOES lets participants wear monitoring equipment throughout the day to capture their heart functions under various circumstances ranging from routines, sleep, exercises and so on. This is coupled with other data coming from wearables and an ultrasound scanner that was developed by the research team themselves which gives off high-frequency sound waves to conjure images of organs inside one’s body. The research team hopes that the robust data will complement those that were collected briefly during clinical examinations and allowed them to build a digital twin of heart that is closest to the patient’s actual heart.

The research team believes this will benefit cardiologists in general, who often find it challenging for patients to describe their symptoms completely. Hospital tests may not give a full picture too especially if the individual was under some form of stress when examinations are being carried out. Digital twin heart and all those data that were captured may be a new avenue to render better insights or to forewarn them of an abnormality.

Similarly, the digital twin of heart allows simulations of treatments to be performed so that cardiologists will have a better grasp of the possible outcomes and determine if the intervention is truly suitable for the patient. In the long run, all these will give physicians new knowledge of how our body and heart are working.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.