How 5G Technology Will Transform the Healthcare Industry
Although it’s still rolling out, 5G technology has already helped create some positive healthcare outcomes.
South Korea was one of the first countries to adopt 5G. It was also one of the first countries to get hit by Covid-19. The high-tech nation was quick to roll out a contact tracing application that helped to identify and contact people who had been near a suspected coronavirus case. This swift action flattened the curve, and the first wave passed with minimal loss of life.
Contact tracing is one way that healthcare benefits from having a high-speed, low-latency mobile data network. But there are plenty of other ways that 5G will help keep us healthy, even after coronavirus is a distant memory.
What’s the connection between 5G and healthcare?
5G is the next generation of mobile data technology, offering much faster speeds than 4G LTE. Not only is it zippier, but 5G also offers a more stable connection, with intelligent connectivity and almost zero latency.
5G also has enhanced support for IoT devices. Thousands of devices can connect simultaneously without impacting performance, and connectivity requires very little power, which means that they can run on small batteries.
All of this is a big opportunity for the healthcare sector, which uses a wide range of data-generating devices. Healthcare providers (HCPs) are often working under pressure, so they need fast, reliable connectivity to help deliver urgent care to patients in need.
Having this next-generation connection will create new possibilities in the world of healthcare. Let’s see what’s in store.
5 healthcare applications of 5G technology
5G will help to completely transform healthcare in the coming decade. Here are five trends that you can expect to see in the coming years.
Covid-19 caused every HCP to rethink their approach to telemedicine. It wasn’t safe to bring patients into the clinic during a pandemic, especially when those patients were in the vulnerable category. The next best option was to offer consultations over the internet. In many places, telemedicine consultations weren’t even conducted on dedicated healthcare platforms, but on commercial videochat apps like Zoom and Facetime.
Telemedicine was already a $45 billion industry before Covid-19, and dedicated telemedicine platforms will keep growing in popularity and sophistication. However, one of the biggest stumbling blocks has been the delivery of services. The doctor may have a high-speed connection, but that doesn’t matter if they’re talking to a patient who’s on 3G.
The rollout of 5G offers faster than ever connectivity, with speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G. 5G also offers new communication options, such as Voice over 5G New Radio (VoNR). There will still be some barriers – patients will require a 5G compatible device, for example – but 5G will allow doctors and patients to consult in HD video with minimum latency.
Enhanced connectivity will also allow for data-rich telemedicine sessions by enabling real-time streaming from wearables, and by allowing rapid transfers of large files.
Real-time data streaming from wearable monitors
The US wearables market is set to mushroom in the coming years, going from $18 billion in 2020 to $47 billion in 2025.
Wearables have an impact on two vital areas of healthcare. First, doctors can directly access data from wearable devices. For example, a patient could wear a 5G-enabled heart monitor, which alerts the healthcare team in the event of arrhythmia. Data from these devices will also enrich the telemedicine experience for remote patients.
The other important aspect of wearable technology is its impact on healthcare self-management. Wearables can change our behavior – almost half of people who wear such a device will make a beneficial lifestyle change as a result of the readings.
5G offers to further extend what’s possible with wearable technology. The average person may begin to wear multiple devices to monitor vital functions. These devices could connect independently over 5G, rather than connecting to a phone or other device via Bluetooth. As a result, both the individual and their doctor will have data available to help guide their healthcare decisions.
Rapid file transmission
HCPs can work with some extremely large files. A single CT scan can run to 200MB, and this may often be part of a much larger patient file that includes scans of documents.
File transfers can add unnecessary delays to case handling time. For example, say a radiographer sees 25 patients in a day. If they spend an average of 2 minutes downloading scans for each patient, then that is 50 minutes wasted per working day.
Then there’s the issue of network availability. By definition, the busiest times are those when most people need access to files. That means that everyone is using the network during peak times, so everyone experiences poor connectivity and slow transfer speeds.
As we’ve seen, 5G is much faster than previous data networks. But also has a much greater capacity for data transfers. 5G can carry up to 20 times more data than existing 4G networks. Even with a greater number of connected devices, this still means that HCPs will be able to download files at top speed, even during peak hours.
5G is commonly associated with driverless vehicles. The enhanced connectivity and low latency will allow these vehicles to move safely through a city while communicating with IoT-enabled devices, such as smart traffic signals.
But what about a self-driving ambulance? There are some obvious benefits to an autonomous emergency vehicle. For starters, it would free up the paramedics, who could focus on caring for the patient instead of driving. In the event of another pandemic such as Covid-19, self-driving ambulances could help get patients to hospitals without exposing a crew to infection.
The problem is whether an autonomous vehicle could make this trip safely, especially when driving at high speeds. One potential solution involves deploying two vehicles as a team: an ambulance and a flying drone. In this model, the drone stays ahead of the ambulance as it makes its journey. The drone’s camera monitors traffic, watches for hazards, and helps the ambulance plot the best route.
All of this would still depend on 5G technology, as any kind of self-driving system requires a low-latency connection. The public are still in two minds about this, with around 40 percent of people saying that they would be comfortable in a self-driving ambulance.
Remote medical procedures via VR
Virtual Reality (VR) has many applications in healthcare, including training and simulation. Most of this happens locally, in the sense that your headset connects directly to the machine that’s running the VR.
This is because VR is resource-intensive and tends to run slow over data connections. This is something that will change with 5G. Fifth-generation mobile data allows for data connections with an end-to-end latency of less than 20 milliseconds, allowing people to run VR simulations in something approaching real-time, even over mobile data.
For healthcare, this means that doctors can literally be in two places at once. A specialist can sit in one location with a VR headset, and they could view a surgery taking place on the other side of the world. They could then offer directions to the on-site surgeon or use remote control devices to assist.
This application of 5G technology was already demonstrated practically with an EMT crew in the UK. The test involved a 5G-connected ambulance with a 180-degree camera above the patient’s trolley, and a remote-controlled robotic glove worn by a paramedic.
In this trial run, a doctor was able to use a VR headset to view the patient as if they were present. The doctor was then able to control the robotic glove and successfully administer an ultrasound – all from two miles away.
The risks of 5G technology in healthcare
HCPs have to put security first when thinking about technology. Not only is there a moral and ethical duty to patients, but HIPAA rules mean that healthcare providers could be punished if they’re lax about potential vulnerabilities.
So, is 5G safe? Yes and no. 5G is structurally safe, especially when you use end-to-end encryption for sensitive information. In fact, the new generation of 5G technology may sweep away older tech that contains historic vulnerabilities.
However, the fact is that any network is only as strong as its weakest link, and 5G introduces a lot of new connections. Every device is a potential attack vector, whether it’s a smart ambulance or a wearable health monitor.
We can manage and mitigate these threats, but it requires careful planning and a security-first approach. To quote a recent Brookings Institute paper on 5G security: “The after-the-fact cost of missing a proactive 5G cybersecurity opportunity will be much greater than the cost of cyber diligence up front.” With the right planning, 5G can offer a safe, connected future for everyone.