The Key Importance of Data

Steinbeis experts develop a digital data ecosystem for clinical studies

Somehow it sounds like a paradox: Advancements in medicine over the last decade are one of the reasons why in the future, caring for people will still be a major challenge. Why? Because life expectancy is rising and with this, so is the number of people who require medical support. At the same time, however, there are increasing shortages of skilled staff in the public health sector. Digital solutions may be one way to solve this problem by uncovering new approaches to diagnosing patients, providing treatment, and managing documentation. To pave the way for this, a coherent data ecosystem will be required. This is where the experts at TZM – a member of the Steinbeis Network – come in as part of a research project. KIKS – an acronym in German for artificial intelligence in clinical studies – offers software solutions in conjunction with  the UMG platform to address the lack of standardization and networks between different medical devices.

Data in a clinical setting – diverse and often unstructured

Prosperity has resulted in fundamental improvements in living standards and working conditions in developed countries around the world. As a result, infant mortality has decreased and there have been steady rises in life expectancy. Progress in medicine is just one of the factors that have led to people living longer. On one side of the equation, there are a growing number of people who require medical care into old age, while on the other, there are major – and worsening – shortages in medical specialists and nursing staff. For example, there is already a shortage of at least 50,000 nursing specialists in German hospitals [1]. According to a study conducted several years ago by auditing company PricewaterhouseCoopers, there will be a shortfall of 800,000 personnel in the German healthcare system in 2030. At the same time, there will still be a large number of open doctors’ positions [2].

Digitalization: opportunities and challenges 

There appears to be little choice for medicine in the future. New ways must be found to keep up the high standards of care and achieve appropriate levels of efficiency. One way forward lies in new digital technology. By using artificial intelligence, introducing systems based on the internet of things, setting up telemonitoring networks and telehealth solutions, and making use of robot technology, many of the aforementioned challenges could be mastered. Such technologies improve and accelerate diagnosis, enhance treatment by making it more individual, and make it easier to manage documentation and schedules.

There still remains one major challenge, however: New digital technology will only be introduced on such a wide scale if a sufficiently broad foundation of usable data can be made available. One only needs to look at the day-to-day processes of hospitals to understand that data is generated in many areas of the patient care process. One thing is particularly noticeable: The approaches and methods used to gather, store, and process data are highly heterogeneous. For physicians, nursing staff, and hospital IT departments, this is totally frustrating. It also creates a significant and unnecessary amount of extra work.

Aside from this factor, and the (quite rightly) often debated need to manage people’s medical records with discretion, there is another aspect to this situation – an issue that is currently one of the biggest hindrances in using new technology in medicine: the lack of standardization in communication protocols. The “diversity” that results from this lack of standardization acts like a straitjacket because every time somebody tries to connect medical solutions, they run into a dead end, especially if data from a transmission unit (the data source) can’t be understood by the receiver (the data sink). It’s not enough to simply connect devices if the data sink is unclear about the type of information it is supposed to extract from individual data streams or certain data sources – or where or how it is expected to do this. There is an extremely realistic danger that false numbers are extracted for subsequent processing and analysis. Genuine connectivity enables interoperability – or in other words: It enables data to be exchanged based on fundamentally standardized and reliable information.

A key prerequisite for success: a data ecosystem

It will be important to set up and develop a suitable data ecosystem in the future, especially if artificial intelligence should be used to improve the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. One key priority will be clinical studies, because they are an important stage in validating and approving drugs and treatment methods. Against this background, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy announced a pitch. One of the winners that emerged from the initiative was a research project called KIKS, a German acronym standing for artificial intelligence in clinical studies. The overall project is valued at more than €15 million, involving no less than 16 consortium partners, five of whom are university hospitals. The aim of the project is to develop a digital ecosystem which will equally benefit patients, hospitals, and the producers of medical technology. On the one hand, KIKS should identify the requirements that hospitals and the producers of medical products will have to meet to make effective use of clinical data. On the other, the idea is to develop a cloud-based digital ecosystem based on these key requirements. This ecosystem should be capable of delivering state-of-the-art architecture and security technology in line with legal and ethical considerations.

The UMG system combines clinical instruments using plug-and-play technology

The UMG makes data exchange more secure

TZM was invited to join the consortium due to its long track record and experience in developing medical software. The UMG (universal medical gateway) platform developed by TZM makes it possible to acquire data from medical devices and transfer this information to clinical systems. The UMG integration platform is adaptable and manufacturer-independent. It also ensures data is exchanged securely between equipment. As well as safeguarding connectivity, it lays an important foundation for interoperability. Aside from offering functional advantages, such as expanded patient monitoring options and ways to enhance patient care, it also improves administration, simplifies invoicing, and provides accurate patient documentation etc. The UMG basically acts as a “bridging element” that acquires reliable data from previously unconnected sources and processes information by drawing on new technology. To do this, the platform uses powerful plug-and-play technology and is wonderfully easy to operate. For example, it does not require complex configuration or settings, and hospitals can use the system without requiring special infrastructure beforehand. The UMG solution can be bought outright or used as part of a service agreement.


Prof. Dr. Rainer Würslin (author)
Senior Advisor
TZM GmbH (Göppingen)

Bastian Mazzoli (author)
Solution Manager
Medical Connectivity
TZM GmbH (Göppingen)

[1] Deutscher Pflegerat (German Nursing Council) (2018): Position paper on personnel shortages in nursing
[2] PricewaterhouseCoopers (2010): Skills shortages – in-patient and out-patient care until 2030