Feb 18 2020

What to Expect from 5G in Healthcare

The technology shows promise for telehealth, robotic surgery and more, but questions and challenges remain.

The arrival of 5G has the potential to transform healthcare delivery by boosting speed and capacity while reducing latency. Although still in its infancy, this powerful network has big potential for healthcare. 

Among the possibilities: transmitting large medical images, facilitating telehealth initiatives and supporting remote patient monitoring tools — as well as enabling more complex uses of artificial intelligence and augmented and virtual reality. 

5G also will facilitate faster downloads and communication on mobile devices and tablets used in healthcare settings, and it’s likely to be a fitting complement to Wi-Fi 6.

“We need an underlying network that can power the speed of connection with the breadth of data,” Robin Braun, Global Storage CIO for Healthcare at Dell EMC, recently told HealthTech. “5G promises to provide that infrastructure and push smart devices and decisions from the core to the edge, creating secure, smarter data streams and enabling greater personalization.”

Still, many questions remain, which is why healthcare leaders must understand the evolving 5G landscape and related challenges of the transition. 

How 5G Could Help Improve Healthcare Delivery

As more organizations launch or expand their telehealth offerings, the high-quality video fueled by 5G could help patients and providers achieve a quick, clear connection. However, this will require that 5G coverage — 10 to 100 times faster than a typical 4G cellular connection — be available both in remote areas and at the site of care delivery. 

5G is also poised to benefit an expanding network of Internet of Medical Things devices and other wearables used to conduct remote patient monitoring. Such efforts allow clinicians to keep tabs on vital signs, medication adherence and other data from afar to personalize care. 

Still, these connected technologies are “largely limited by the capacity of the network to handle data,” Ron Malenfant, lead global architect for 5G at Cisco, wrote in FierceHealthcare last year. “5G will enable more reliable connections to facilitate the data transfers workers need to make quick health care decisions remotely for more patients.”

To that end, 5G will be critical for sending large images — and it could pave the way for imaging tools such as X-rays and MRIs to operate wirelessly. And it can also play a role in supporting augmented and virtual reality tools for training in complex medical scenarios.

Looking forward, there’s excitement about 5G’s potential to power robotic surgery tools that eliminate distance (and technical lag time) between doctors and patients. The first such effort took place in China last year: 5G aided a surgeon’s robotic placement of a brain stimulation device in a patient with Parkinson’s disease located 1,900 miles away.

READ MORE: How 5G and IoT can enhance the patient care paradigm.

Challenges of Implementing 5G in Healthcare

To fully leverage the power and advantages of 5G, it’s helpful for healthcare leaders and clinicians to understand some misconceptions and roadblocks that must be addressed in the years ahead.

First, current 4G smartphones aren’t compatible with 5G (Gartner forecasts 221 million 5G smartphones will be sold this year; the tally will more than double in 2021). Current coverage, likewise, is only available in a limited number of metro areas, and not always in a consumer-facing capacity. Furthermore, there has been misleading 5G branding, and there are concerns about 5G towers’ shorter range, which has required many more towers to be installed. 

Meanwhile, healthcare organizations will also need to evaluate their infrastructures and device stables. 

Transitioning to 5G is “not a light switch,” as Craig Richardville, senior vice president and CIO of SCL Health in Denver, recently told TechTarget. “It needs to be done in a methodical way. That includes upgrading technology and applications to either speak 5G or disabling the [legacy] technology piece by piece.”

There’s no question that much is left to address before 5G becomes a mainstream component in healthcare. The planning and problem-solving must start now.

This article is part of HealthTech’s MonITor blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using #WellnessIT.

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