Prof. Dr. Werner Seeger, Medical Director of the University Clinic Giessen and Marburg, talks about his experiences from the Corona pandemic, the importance of lung research and the potential of digitization and artificial intelligence for the future of medicine at the UKGM.
What lessons have you been learning from the Corona pandemic at the UKGM?
Prof. Werner Seeger: On the positive side of this experience, first of all, there is the reassuring realization that in such a crisis the vast majority of employees are willing to highly commit themselves to overcome the problems at hand, and even accept personal risk. The use of this “human reserve potential” was the most important prerequisite for redesigning the clinic in many cases, with a goal of changing requirements and establishing completely new workflows in the shortest possible time. The willingness of all 17 hospitals in the Central Hessen coordination region, which I lead, to integrate themselves into a common coping strategy, regardless of the respective hospital management structure, was also extremely positive. This concerned, for example, the transfer of the most critical patients to the two maximum care facilities, UKGM and the Kerckhoff Clinic, but also mutual support with different materials in critical bottleneck situations. The negative side of this experience includes, first and foremost, the recognition that we are critically dependent on material supplies from abroad, such as masks, gowns and other protective materials. We cannot even continue to work autonomously for several months if these supply structures collapse. In a maximum joint effort with the State of Hessen, using various industrial contacts and also the willingness of small and medium-sized companies to contribute acutely to solve this bottleneck, it was possible to find sufficient materials for patient care in this phase, too. However, in the future, improved supply security which is independent of international supply chains must be established.
How has Corona changed your view of lung research?
Prof. Werner Seeger: It has once again become clear what an immense amount of catching up there is to do in lung research, both nationally and internationally. In the future, too, airborne infections, which of course primarily affect the lungs, represent the greatest international threat in terms of a pandemic. Unlike other infections — water contamination, sexually transmitted diseases, and so forth — airborne infections will never be completely controllable. Since vaccinations, if they are to be successful — and hopefully so in the case of Corona — can only be developed retrospectively, it is of fundamental importance to better understand the immunology of the lungs. This means better understanding the special and complex bacterial defense function of this organ, in order to develop and get new therapeutic approaches approved that can optimize this pulmonary immune defense and be better equipped for future airborne pathogens. Against this background, it can be described as wise foresight that the State of Hessen, together with the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Justus Liebig University, recently decided on a lung research focus in Giessen. This focus is managed by myself and my colleague Grimminger, of Bad Nauheim, to set up an additional institute, namely the Institute for Lung Health (ILH), which focuses on precisely this topic.
How is the UKGM already implementing digitization and using AI for the benefit of patients? What are the perspectives?
Prof. Werner Seeger: Even now it is inconceivable for a university clinic, as well as any large hospital, to be without digitization. This is a virtually continuous process, but its potential is far from being exhausted. Indeed, we are just at the beginning, kindly supported by the medical informatics initiative of the German federal government, to make the almost inexhaustible number of clinical data on disease progression systematically usable for research evaluations. It is evident here that the sheer volume of data far exceeds the data that can be evaluated by the human brain. This is all the more so since clinical data are coupled with a large number of laboratory data, and, in the future, increasingly differentiated analysis data, modern technologies (genomics, proteomics, metabolism, and so on). The current state of digitization, computer science and bioinformatics is indispensable in order to answer questions that we can pre-formulate with regard to the analysis of these data sets.
However, we need artificial intelligence instruments to create questions and answers from them that we would never have thought of, that are therefore outside of our own field of ideas — the ‘unknown unknowns’ as opposed to the ‘known unknowns.’ This development is only just beginning, and it is the classic field of flexible small and medium-sized companies as well as startups that are emerging in the university environment. Here, I also see very good conditions for the healthcare structures in the Central Hessen region.