Heather Nelson, Senior Vice President and CIO at Boston Children’s Hospital, is leading the rollout of a hybrid 5G network in summer 2024.

May 28 2024

How Are Healthcare Organizations Approaching 5G?

It’s lift-off time for healthcare organizations ushering in a new era of connectivity at their facilities.

An important yet challenging part of the job for senior leadership at any healthcare organization is to develop a future outlook backed by a plan for making it a reality. One top executive who knows this well is Heather Nelson, senior vice president and CIO at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Nelson is leading the rollout of a hybrid 5G network at Boston Children’s in summer 2024. The technology is being deployed alongside the organization’s transition to a unified electronic health record (EHR) system.

“5G obviously isn’t new,” says Nelson, noting that the network relies on a mix of public and private infrastructure. “What’s new is having 5G in healthcare. The connectivity that it’s going to give us is incredible.”

The partnership with T-Mobile will leverage the wireless carrier’s 5G Advanced Network Solutions suite. The large pediatric medical center spans around 3 million square feet across its various research and patient care facilities.

Nelson describes the network as “cellular agnostic,” meaning that patients and families without T-Mobile plans can still tap into it on their personal phones. The main driver for the deployment, however, had more to do with the impact the technology will have on clinical care.

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The clinicians at Boston Children’s recently began using a cloud-based communications tool optimized for their hospital-issued iOS devices, Nelson says. The platform connects to their EHR’s mobile apps to streamline everything from clinical documentation to secure instant messaging between staff.

With hybrid 5G in play, clinicians will no longer have to depend on Wi-Fi as they move around, Nelson says. The network will mean that stable cellular connections should be obtainable throughout the health system’s campuses, and it will enable seamless communication between hospital facilities and the connected medical devices that patients use in their homes.

Nelson says that she knows this because part of the plan, and the eventual rollout, involved extensive testing of the technology.

“We needed it to work on any device, in any location, at any time and securely, and that’s what we have,” she says. “There’s even connectivity in the hospital’s subbasement. That’s really just unheard of.”

READ MORE: Overcome wireless networking challenges with next-level 5G connectivity.

A Solution for Healthcare’s Internet of Things

Although the hybrid 5G deployment at Boston Children’s is one of the first of its kind in the U.S., industry analysts predict it won’t be long before other healthcare organizations follow suit.

In fact, many hospitals have already moved ahead with ambitious 5G initiatives of their own. In 2023, California-based VA Palo Alto Health Care System announced the deployment of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ first private 5G network. And Cleveland Clinic recently launched a similar 5G project to support a new state-of-the-art hospital in Ohio.

Healthcare facilities are pursuing 5G because many are finding that 4G networks are no longer able to handle the growing number of connected devices used in clinical care, says Elliot Mandel, chief technologist with Booz Allen Hamilton.

“5G takes advantage of frequency bands that they didn’t have access to before,” he says. “It lets them transmit and use a lot more data, and much faster than they can with 4G.”

Jim Francis
There’s a lot you can do as a healthcare organization when you have that kind of connectivity.”

Jim Francis CTO and Vice President of IT, Houston Methodist

Reduced data latency and higher transmission speeds are both on the docket for Houston Methodist when it opens its newest hospital in April 2025. The health system is working with AT&T and Verizon to bring 5G to the facility, says Jim Francis, CTO and vice president of IT at Houston Methodist.

“What we’re doing with 5G is really about spectrum modernization,” Francis says. “We’ll have the public 5G that anyone can use, but then we’ll tie into that with private 5G as well as Wi-Fi 6 and our Citizens Broadband Radio Service band.”

To support the technology, Houston Methodist has installed a distributed antenna system that will amplify the wireless signal across the entire hospital campus. The 104-acre site will include recreational amenities such as walking trails and sports fields, so it’s important to ensure that clinicians on break are easy to reach in emergency situations, he adds.

Francis says that he envisions situations where enhanced wireless communications might play a critical role in care provided outside the hospital’s walls. In the event of a major accident on a nearby highway, for example, a care team might use a 5G-enabled van to connect to the EHR as soon as it starts the triage process.

“The flexibility it’s going to give us is exciting to think about,” he says. “There’s a lot you can do as a healthcare organization when you have that kind of connectivity.”

EXPLORE: Healthcare leaders share how smart hospitals use technology to transform patient care.

The ‘Promise’ of Seamless Connectivity in Healthcare

Another healthcare leader with 5G on his mind is Aaron Miri, chief digital and information officer at Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Fla.

Miri describes 5G as having “tremendous promise” for the healthcare industry, and points to Europe and Japan as examples of what’s in store for the U.S.

“In countries where they’ve invested heavily in wireless infrastructure, they’re years ahead of us,” Miri says. “You see the instantaneous access to information, the application and availability of multimedia and large file downloads. Being able to leverage that, it’s beyond anything we can do today.”

Baptist Health doesn’t currently have 5G, but Miri says that the organization is evaluating its options. The health system serves a vast area, and many of its patients live in rural communities that don’t have access to broadband.

“Could 5G help us get to those patients?” he asks. “Could it help us engage our patients in a dynamic way, with conversations and data sharing, on their personal devices? That’s our hope, but we don’t know yet. In our case, we’re not there.”

What he does know for certain, Miri says, is that in areas where 5G becomes a reality, healthcare is going to change for the better: “5G will unlock the promise of medicine so that providers will be able to deliver care at the right place and when patients need it most.”

Illustration by David Brinley

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