“5G is a significant advancement, which holds great potential to improve the delivery of healthcare.”John Riggi, American Hospital Association’s senior adviser for cybersecurity and risk
A 5G revolution is imminent and will give an explosive boost to the digital transformation of healthcare. The fifth generation of wireless technology can carry a massive number of connections at mind-blowing speed, which will impact humanity on many levels — healthcare is only one of the sectors to experience significant disruption. Let’s start with the basics.
What Is 5G Technology? – Similar to existing networks, 5G networks are digital cellular networks divided into small coverage areas using radio waves to transmit information across connected devices. While historical networks have used low-frequency transmission bands ranging from 2.5 to 5.0 GHz, 5G networks can transmit information over higher frequency bands ranging from 30 to 300 GHz. This enables the transmission of large “packets” of data over higher speeds without clogging networks and creates networks that have a lower “latency” (the delay during communication over a network) compared with traditional networks. Specifically, while conventional networks can reach speeds of up to 15 megabytes per second, 5G networks can reach speeds greater than 10 gigabytes per second. Similarly, while latency for traditional networks is typically 50 milliseconds, 5G networks communicate information with a latency of 1–3 milliseconds. These features unique to 5G allow for the potential transformation of health care, as I’ll discuss shortly.
As you can see in the graphic above, Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies for 2019 places 5G technology at the peak of inflated expectations with an expectation that the technology will reach the plateau of productivity in two to five years. Everything we’ve seen to date indicates that the timeline still holds today.
In the US, a small number of 5G networks have already launched. Estimates say that by 2023, over 30% of North American mobile connections will be on a 5G network. In a recent report on 5G in medical devices, data analysis company GlobalData says the healthcare industry stands to benefit “enormously” from the adoption of 5G technology as the increased speeds from 5G networks increase hospital efficiency, improving communication and data sharing between departments, clinics, and hospitals. Let’s look at some potential use cases for fifth-generation cellular technology in health care.
Facilitating The Growth Of Telemedicine And Implications For Health Care Delivery – Historically, telemedicine efforts have been limited by bandwidth and latency, resulting in an inability to share large quantities of data in real-time between networks. Unlike its predecessors, 5G will be able to support the high-resolution video requirements of telehealth appointments while simultaneously allowing real-time sharing of data collected from radiological investigations (such as MRIs) or additional video information from consultations. This, in turn, would facilitate real-time consultations and decision-making across networks, expanding access and care for patients, particularly individuals who would otherwise have incurred significant delays in access to specialized consultations.
Remote patient monitoring – 5G networks will provide near-instantaneous data transfer speeds, which will make a massive impact on all connected devices in healthcare. As telehealth services require a lot of bandwidth, wearable technology and remote patient monitoring will be revolutionized.
Medical imaging and Digital Pathology – Huge data files of medical images and digital pathology slides could be transported quickly and reliably, leading to improved quality of care.
AR and VR – GlobalData forecasts that the global AR market will be worth $76bn by 2030, up from $4bn in 2018. As its analysts write in their report on AR in the health industry, “the healthcare sector is undergoing a digital transformation, fuelled by changing healthcare payor and provider needs,” adding that “AR is gradually making its way into the healthcare sector.” Surgeons can, for example, benefit from the AR “x-ray vision” granted by US brand Augmedics, with an AR navigation tech that allows them to see a patient’s anatomy through skin and tissue while operating. The rise of AR in health comes as VR/AR headsets and smart glasses become cheaper, and more AR apps appear on smartphones. Some brands like XRHealth are even sending out headsets to customers to treat ADHD in the States.
Remote-controlled surgery and robotics – Remotely controlled surgery will be a step closer to using wireless technology due to superior image quality and low latency, or “lagginess.” Earlier this year, a surgeon in China performed the world’s first remote operation on an animal using 5G surgery, where he controlled a robotic arm in a remote location 30 miles away. Low latency periods and increased image quality and definition will allow doctors to make vital decisions in a short time and with the most accurate information available. In the emerging area of cloud robotics, where the sum of all knowledge gained by a robot connected to a cloud platform can be passed on to every other robot on the same platform, the speed of the exchange of information is crucial. 5G technology will form the base for the new generation of robots that will function wirelessly and exploit the enormous data stored on the cloud.
Smart hospitals – The intelligent hospitals of the future as envisioned by KTi Corporation and Samsung Medical Center in South Korea would have 5G-connected cameras to allow high-quality video and audio streams of the operating theatre to be shared to other rooms, improving the education of resident physicians. Additionally, these hospitals would have an internal 5G network, allowing large data files, such as those from diagnostic imaging machines, to be transferred to different departments. Smart hospitals may also enable patients to have 5G-enabled on-body health monitoring sensors, allowing physicians access to their real-time health metric data without being physically present. This allows staff to react faster to any changes and make better-informed decisions regarding treatments.
Sound far-fetched? It’s already in use in medical systems around the world. The UK’s University Hospital Birmingham, for example, has collaborated with telecom giant BT to equip one of its ambulances with 5G connectivity. University Hospital Birmingham also boasts a 5G connection between community intermediate care and acute hospital teams, including digital stethoscopes, ECG, and high-resolution video. This allows for thorough assessments to be carried out without the need for patients to be physically present and at risk from Covid infection. The increased speeds and improved bandwidth of 5G have allowed this integration of devices and data streams, resulting in faster and more streamlined treatment times and more efficient patient care.
“When you go home, your connection back to the hospital, your connection back to the doctor, your connection back to the nurses, does not stop.”Shafiq Rab, M.D., Chief Information Officer, Rush University System for Health
Here in the U.S., Rush University System for Health has partnered with AT&T announcing its intent to become 5G-enabled. Under the partnership, which AT&T characterized as a “trial agreement,” the company will set up small cells in strategic places around the health system’s flagship hospital, Rush University Medical Center. Rush is also integrating services from AT&T that will allow the hospital to route the specific application traffic to different cloud servers to manage traffic across the 5G network. Rush and AT&T’s goal is to test how 5G can improve various hospital processes. It’s part of an effort to understand better how quick speed and low latency can help to create a “smart hospital,” according to Mo Katibeh, chief marketing officer at AT&T Business.
What are the potential limitations of 5G technology in health care? – As with any new technology or innovation, caution must be exercised when implementing 5G technology to prevent potential detrimental effects. Given the amount of data collected, measures must be taken to ensure that large volumes of vulnerable information are safeguarded and protected from cyber-attacks. This can be achieved by implementing additional encryption mechanisms across enterprise systems, providing continuous feedback for network abnormalities, and monitoring connected devices for their interaction with the network. Additionally, networks can also be segmented: This ensures that non-critical devices are disconnected from core systems, limiting the network’s vulnerability as a whole. Perhaps the most significant area for caution will be providing appropriate and equal 5G coverage across the US and globally. In the US, while 5G has been piloted in large urban areas and communities, its implementation across rural areas—where arguably the impact of these technologies would be most significant—and minority communities has been limited due to a lack of appropriate infrastructure.
My take – Future advancements and devices built upon new 5G networks and systems will have the potential to further health care transformation, increase access to high-quality health care for patients, and aid in narrowing health care disparities across the US. Targeted policies aiming to facilitate safe and equal access to technologies leveraging 5G will be pivotal to the success of these technologies in improving quality and access to care.