Apr 06 2020

Fact or Fallacy: Is 5G Going to Change Healthcare?

Expected to drive developments in virtual care, image sharing and robotic surgery, the technology is only just getting started.

There’s been plenty of buzz about 5G — and some confusion.

Companies working to provide (and promote) the fifth generation of cellular service are promising speeds up to 100 times faster than current coverage and latency near real time. These powers suggest big potential for healthcare, but there are many logistical hurdles to address before availability and adoption become widespread in medicine.

Still, change is coming: Telecom carriers are expected to invest more than $275 billion by 2025 to deploy this infrastructure, according to Accenture.

Here’s what clinicians and IT staffs should know as rollouts continue.

Fact: 5G Is Flexible

5G can operate within three spectrum bands — low, middle and high — each with different characteristics that affect performance. For example, 5G can use the lower band (at 1 gigahertz or less, the same used by 4G LTE), which works at longer distances from a transmitter but at reduced speeds. 

A middle-spectrum band ranges from 1GHz to 6GHz (the 3.3GHz-to- 3.8GHz range is expected to form the basis of many initial 5G services). The highest-spectrum band, at 24GHz and higher, is poised to offer speeds up to 10 gigabits per second, which is 100 times faster than 4G technology.

Fallacy: 4G Devices Work with 5G

Users can’t take advantage of 5G benefits without a new phone (4G and 4G LTE phones will continue to work on existing infrastructure).

There’s another catch: Few 5G consumer devices are compatible with both low- and high-spectrum bands, meaning that most users will have to evaluate local coverage and price points when making a purchase.

Other complications have fed the noise. A lawsuit settled in 2019 alleged one telecom provider falsely advertised having a 5G network after a small “5G E” logo appeared on phone screens of customers; users weren’t actually connecting to a 5G network.

LEARN MORE: What to expect from 5G in healthcare.

Fact: 5G Will Require New Infrastructure

The shorter-range, higher frequencies that power 5G promise ultrafast, low-latency connections. Accessing them, however, can be interrupted by something as simple as leaves on a tree, a double-paned window or the walls of a building. 

That’s because higher frequencies travel shorter distances, so a greater density of transmitters will be required to form a viable 5G network. Doing so means more cell towers, sometimes just hundreds of feet apart, and more antenna tuning (costs that likely will affect consumers).

The promise is that these 5G antennas ­should be able to support 1 million connected devices per square kilometer, adding much-needed capacity that has been tapped out in the 4G range.

Fallacy: 5G’s Full ­Capabilities Can Be Leveraged Now

5G technology has the potential to improve healthcare IT in the coming years as the technology is deployed. There’s reason to be excited for many innovations ahead.

Among them are:

  • Remote patient monitoring: In the acute care setting, telemetry systems and Internet of Medical Things tools could wirelessly send patient data in real time to a monitoring station. 5G may also better support the practice from patients’ homes
  • Virtual visits: Speedy connections that support high-quality video and audio tools are crucial to the growth of telehealth, allowing physicians to more effectively communicate, diagnose and treat patients.
  • Image transmission: A high-speed network will be critical for sending large images between facilities and mobile devices — and it could pave the way for imaging tools such as X-rays and MRIs to operate wirelessly.
  • Robotic surgery: The practice isn’t new, but distance-based operations could proliferate with 5G. The first 5G-enabled effort took place in China last year, when a surgeon placed a brain stimulation device from 1,900 miles away.

READ MORE: Curious about Wi-Fi 6? Learn what it means for healthcare delivery.

Fact: 5G Frequencies Are Safe

There’s no current evidence that wireless network signals are harmful to human health, even with the higher density of towers required for 5G networks, says Christopher M. Collins, a professor of radiology at New York University who studies the effect of high-frequency electromagnetic waves on humans.

Human skin, Collins notes, provides a protective barrier against those higher frequencies more effectively than it does against lower ones.

And while 5G can extend past the typical radio wave frequencies into the infrared and ultraviolet frequencies, it doesn’t come close to the upper limits where harmful radiation is ­generated.

jamesteohart/Getty Images

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT