Mar 04 2021

VA, Air Force Test Out 5G in Hospital Settings

The VA’s 5G-powered hospital is a sign of modernization to come in the federal medical space.

In February 2020, the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California became the first Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, and one of the first hospitals in the world, to establish 5G connectivity.

The VA, along with agencies such as the Department of Defense, is testing 5G to develop and validate healthcare applications that could improve patient care.

In the U.S. healthcare sector, says Dr. Thomas Osborne, director of the VA’s National Center for Collaborative Healthcare Innovation, costs are growing, the population is aging, and there are not enough providers to deliver the same care as in the past.

“It is a very dramatic time in healthcare where we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to solve these challenges,” he says. “However, if we don’t, there could be far-reaching negative consequences.”

The solution, Osborne believes, lies in technology: in particular, 5G, which carriers have continued to roll out in small-scale launches since the spring of 2019. The technology supports diverse radio-frequency spectrum bands that have very high available bandwidth, and speeds between 10 and 100 times faster than those of 4G LTE, with latency cut to milliseconds.

“In healthcare, we are producing a ton of data, which is really important. However, we haven’t realized the potential of this resource that requires advanced analytics and the ability to efficiently transmit data in a way that is actionable at the point of care,” Osborne says.

“If 4G is like driving on a narrow dirt road, 5G is like cruising on a five-lane superhighway without any traffic. It allows you to move more data, faster and more efficiently. All kinds of important and exciting opportunities open up as a result.”

5G Networking Drives Wide-Ranging Healthcare Applications

Leo Gergs, 5G markets research analyst at ABI Research, says he sees it not only powering clinical use cases, but also improving healthcare operations.

“One of the interesting revelations I came across during my research is that a nurse spends only 18 percent of the day performing patient-facing duties,” he says. “The rest is spent filling out forms, personnel management or even doing trivial things like searching for equipment. Deploying 5G doesn’t eradicate all of that workload, but it reduces it substantially.”

“If we’re reducing that to the point where a nurse would spend just half of the day doing administrative tasks,” he says, “that would obviously increase patient-facing time and decrease personnel costs, while also increasing the quality of the healthcare system as a whole.”

Osborne has a long list of use cases for 5G, including augmented reality (AR) applications such as medical education; pre-surgical planning; operative guidance; remote surgical consults; and remote, real-time training. His VA team is collaborating with partners such as Verizon for the 5G infrastructure and Microsoft for its HoloLens headsets.

“Recently, we connected teams in New York and in Palo Alto, all interacting with the same holographic model of human anatomy, at the same time,” Osborne says. “It felt like we were all in the same physical room. I don’t think anyone’s ever done distant medical training like that before, and it’s particularly important in the time of COVID.”

“You have these 3D, holographic human anatomy models that are real size, but you can also expand them so that they’re larger than life,” Osborne adds. “To be able to virtually enlarge and walk inside structures such as the human heart, that takes learning to a whole other level.”

Osborne’s team is also collaborating with partners on applications that would project MRIs and other scans directly onto a patient’s body, he says, giving physicians virtual X-ray vision to guide surgeries and other interventions.

“A CT scan of someone’s body may contain hundreds and sometimes thousands of images, and each can be several megabytes in size,” he notes. “In addition, the technology needs to merge 2D images together to create an interactive 3D model image, and those are big files.

“You need the superior bandwidth to allow the efficient relay of large amounts of data to make the whole process effective without lag time or jittering images. This is particularly important in surgery because it has to be flawless.”

A major 5G experimentation initiative is also underway at Joint Base San Antonio, which was one of 12 DOD sites selected in June 2020 to test the technology.

Dr. Thomas Osborne
“If 4G is like driving on a narrow dirt road, 5G is like cruising on a five-lane superhighway without any traffic. It allows you to move more data, faster and more efficiently.

Dr. Thomas Osborne director of the VA’s National Center for Collaborative Healthcare Innovation

Michael Lovell, Electromagnetic Defense Initiative executive director and leader of the 5G efforts at JBSA, says the technology could “collapse time and space” between field medics and medical experts anywhere in the world, improving trauma care in battle.

“What 5G offers is low latency, high speed and great throughput,” Lovell says. “You can enable a medical corpsman in the field to access the expertise of a trauma surgeon halfway around the world, in real time.”

Col. Sean Hipp, director of the virtual medical center at Brooke Army Medical Center, which is housed at JBSA, says the 5G testing program has many goals.

“We really want to support medical training, telehealth, telerobotic surgery, AR and also medics in the field,” he says. “One key component is making sure we are empowering our airmen, medics and corpsmen who are far-forward.”

Federal Programs Are Moving 5G Forward in Healthcare

Although commercial 5G rollouts began two years ago, they have proceeded slowly, with manpower and other logistical concerns limiting their speed. So, while agencies may develop cutting-edge applications in the coming months, it will likely be several years before 5G is pervasive across federal healthcare.

Gergs anticipates a wait of at least two years for a mature market to develop for devices reliable enough to fully utilize 5G in healthcare settings.

“I hope we’ll be doing more testing and moving this program forward by the summer and fall of 2021,” says Hipp. “The big thing for me is the collaboration. We work in siloes constantly, and this program is trying to break down those siloes. I’m really excited about the future.”

The 5G initiative at JBSA acquired a 24,000-square-foot testing facility last year, and Lovell says he’s excited to start testing out Internet of Things applications, among other use cases, at the site.

“It makes my mind spin to think of the opportunities we have,” he says. “It’s not like you have to push fiber through a wall anymore. The technology is leapfrogging itself at a very rapid rate.”

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: See how hyperconvergence supports the demands of COVID-19 reporting.

Visivasnc/Getty Images