5G and the Future of Healthcare

October, 2021

By Aryaman Verma

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In actual use, 5G promises to be 10—20 times faster and with less latency than the previous generation (4G), enabling new capabilities and transforming applications in a variety of industries. However, the cost of 5G is enormous. Healthcare, a notoriously laggard sector, has the opportunity to take a big step forward if it can choose the right applications to begin its investment.

Do We Have True 5G Today?

The short answer is no. What we have that is called 5G today is really just enhanced 4G. Mobile carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T advertise a much faster network, but when compared to 4G, it is only faster by up to 2.5 times in some cases as tested and reported by tech reviewers. Realistically, 5G can be thought of as a “4G Plus” network. This is a marketing strategy for carriers to encourage device and data plan upgrades. The technology exists, but it has not yet been implemented at scale.

While the true fifth-generation network (once implemented) is a significant technological leap forward, the speeds actually delivered to mobile devices will depend on the frequency bands being used by towers in their respective areas. There are three types of 5G frequency bands that trade off speed for distance. At the low end, 5G can be 225 megabytes per second (six times faster than 4G) and have a range of hundreds of square miles. At the high end, 5G can reach speeds of 3 gigabytes per second, but it can only cover a range of about a mile. Limitations on the ability of 5G at higher frequencies to pass through solid objects also reduces the range. The varying bands add a layer of complexity and expense, as carriers look to piece together their networks.

Practical Applications of 5G in the Medical Industry

Although 5G delivers great benefits, it requires major capital expenditures, so healthcare providers will need to justify their investment. 5G technology promises the largest increase in speed and processing (up to 100 times faster than 4G), which allows the healthcare sector to harness lower latency applications. The following are five major areas where 5G can revolutionize the delivery of healthcare:

1. Telehealth

Surgeries and administering medical treatments are being revolutionized by 5G through telepresence, where a surgeon watches a real-time operation, providing expert support. Telepresence is possible in some 4G environments, but 5G could enable telesurgery, where the doctor actually operates the surgical device remotely without fear of latency, causing a medical error.

Even routine doctor visits will benefit from the faster network speeds enabled by 5G. Patients and providers are often frustrated by video calls on today’s slower networks. And things will only get worse. According to a study by Market Research Future, the telehealth market is expected to grow 16.8% YOY through 2023. However, due to increased use of telehealth during the pandemic, it is likely that the growth estimate will be even greater.

Because of the heavy network requirements, telemedicine systems nowadays are generally only implemented on high bandwidth wired systems. But 5G will free us from that constraint, allowing for much more flexible and extensible implementations on mobile networks. This will empower patients and providers to connect anywhere anytime.

A key achievement of 5G in telesurgery is that it has a better low-latency transmission. With current 4G networks, the lag time between input and output can sometimes be as long as 2 seconds—a long-enough delay that can result in harm or even death of a patient during surgery. In contrast, 5G reduces latency to as little as 2 milliseconds between devices, allowing the application to work and resulting in safe and successful surgery. Once again, however, the 5G band deployed and distance between the device and the 5G tower will affect latency.

Telesurgery was put to the test recently with the first remote laparoscopic surgical procedure performed at the Skolkovo Innovation Center in Moscow. A fiber-optic instrument was connected to a 4K camera on a 5G network and inserted in the abdomen of a patient, enabling the surgeon to remotely remove the cancerous tumor.

2. Large Data File Transfer

The healthcare industry is one of the most data-intensive industries, with gigabytes and terabytes of data generated from diagnostic imaging applications such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed axial tomography (CAT), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, for example.

According to AT&T, “Adding a high-speed 5G network to existing architectures can help quickly and reliably transport huge data files of medical imagery, which can improve both access to care and the quality of care. At the Austin Cancer Center, the PET scanner generates extremely large files—up to 1 gigabyte of information per patient per study.”

As noted by AT&T, MRIs and other image machines produce very large files, and the tests must be sent to a specialist for review. When a hospital’s or imaging center’s network is low on bandwidth, the transmission can take a long time, leading to the need to do batch transfers after hours. This means the patient waits even longer for treatment, and providers can see fewer patients.

Faster file transfer times deliver benefits throughout the cycle of patient care. Clinicians can deliver diagnoses more quickly and more easily collaborate with other medical professionals caring for the patient, no matter where they are located. All this enables treatment to begin more expeditiously, improving patient outcomes.

5G will eventually change how healthcare workers and patients interact with the data created throughout the patient’s journey. Clinicians are then free to move within the network footprint and not lose the quality of visuals and data they rely on.

3. Improving Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Spatial Computing

Healthcare providers are already using virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and spatialPxfuel HC workers - 5G and the Future of Healthcare computing to some extent today within healthcare facilities and medical schools, for example. Widespread availability of 5G will greatly increase adoption and enable these cutting-edge applications to be deployed remotely, leading to new applications in healthcare.

For example, AT&T is exploring opportunities to apply 5G to overcome medical challenges. They are collaborating with VITAS Healthcare to study the effects of 5G-enabled AR and VR on patient engagement. Their goal is to reduce pain and anxiety for terminally ill patients in hospice by providing calming or distracting content via 5G-enabled AR and VR.

This technology has not yet been fully developed because of the latency constraint. Compared with 4G technology, 5G can offer a 10-fold decrease in latency, from the current 20 milliseconds at 4G LTE to as low as 1 millisecond.

When high-resolution rendering of spatial environments for AR is consumed through a mobile device, the graphic processing power is limited due to the form factor. If edge-computing systems can process the rendering on large graphics processing units (GPUs) and transmit the visual and audio outputs to mobile devices at high bit rates, the impact from the device’s resources is minimized. This approach of processing visual environments also frees developers from the limitation of mobile processors and battery life impact concerns, enabling more practical use cases for VR/AR.

Even training and education can become more effective through the application of 5G. In the wake of COVID-19, all organizations were searching for novel, virtual ways to train and educate new staff and students. Using an AR/VR headset—either in the hospital, classroom, or even at home—could enable medical students and trainee specialists to perform practice procedures in a virtual environment (on “virtual” patients) and even collaborate on these virtual procedures in real time.

4. Sensor Innovation

Advancements in sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT) will provide more medical devices to patients, allowing them to reliably measure and monitor their health from home. These innovations in healthcare will calibrate, gather, and validate data from trusted sensors. The data can then be transmitted to a variety of medical and healthcare professionals for analysis.

According to Qualcomm, medical sensors will continue to improve as patient demand continues to surge. For example, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize medical device competition in 2017 showed the art-of-the possible in mobile medical applications:

“The entry included a sensor that fits into the palm of your hand and is as user-friendly as your smartphone, enabling patients to easily measure their health at home. This was a major advancement, but one sensor alone really isn’t enough. The combination of numerous patient Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) devices and sensors helps doctors provide a complete health picture for their patients, leading to a personalized health treatment program.”

Although expectations regarding health sensors, wearables, and other connected devices are already high, to transmit real-time data to doctors about the user’s health, current networks and mobile technologies do not hold up to these expectations, which is where 5G technology could be the game changer.

To provide more efficient care toward patients, accurate, pocket-sized connected devices are needed to constantly monitor a patient’s condition. If their vital signs are outside of the normal range, a physician can be notified. 5G technology could enable such health networks to operate in a stable and highly reliable way.

5. Artificial Intelligence

The industry already recognizes the impact that artificial intelligence (AI) can have on patient care. AI systems can quickly prioritize patients for follow up based on various conditions, recommending early interventions when called for. 5G networks can increase the capability of AI systems, which require huge volumes of data to train their models. Lower latency and ultra-reliable communications can now provide both health AI systems and clinicians greater insights to prescribe earlier interventions and improve outcomes.

Behavioral recognition is one promising application for AI. In clinical settings, video analytics can be used to identify patients who are behaving out of the ordinary, had taken a fall, or are becoming a danger to themselves or others. Enabling analytics on a device using smart cameras can lead to expensive hardware, so the analytics should be performed in the cloud or on edge computing devices to maintain security. 5G can be used to enable this use case by providing increased bandwidth and lower latency for video processing and analytics, improving security to protect patient data, and increasing flexibility in adding or moving cameras.

In addition, much more can be done with AI to reduce the number of patients that need to be rehospitalized after surgery. About 20% of Medicare patients who go to the hospital need to be readmitted within 30 days. Many of these are preventable, because the patient did not understand their medical condition or they were unable to care for themselves. The estimated cost to Medicare is over $14 billion per year, not counting the cost to other payers. Empowered by 5G, AI can help identify patients at risk of rehospitalization. Another area AI could help is with chronic disease management. Chronic disease costs Americans more than $1 trillion per year. Much of that cost occurs when patients fail to manage their diseases and require acute care. AI could help identify patient needs and allow healthcare providers to intervene before a condition becomes acute.

Overcoming Challenges with 5G

Although the promise of 5G in healthcare is huge, it will take more work to get there. According to many sources, it will take at least five years to install 5G worldwide and for it to become widely available to consumers. Part of the reason is because the pandemic slowed down the rollout, although telecom providers are expected to be at full efficiency sometime in 2022.

With true 5G yet to be implemented everywhere, we will have to wait for widespread consumer use. Nonetheless, the medical industry should consider more investment in world-changing applications in telesurgery, AI, and sensors. As 5G is an expensive investment, hospitals need to look either to areas where cost savings are high or new areas of potential growth. 5G will not only allow for improved performance of existing technology, it will also allow for medical applications to be reimagined. MedTech developers should be working on how to reengineering their products, as the 5G deployment takes place globally.

Cost savings often come in the form of reduced negative patient outcomes such as poor chronic care, rehospitalization, or staff errors. Increased use of telehealth, patient monitoring through sensors and AI, and better training through VR and AR all fit the bill. In the current pandemic environment and with aging populations, it is even more important for healthcare to be delivered remotely, as much as possible and to limit physical visits to doctors and hospitals for essential tasks.

Revenue growth can come from increasing both the scope and range of care. Real-time monitoring of patient data is a potential new business model for healthcare, which typically relies on patients to come to hospitals. Subscription services around monitoring the health of patients could improve the lives of patients while also providing recurring revenue for hospitals. Increasing the range of telehealth and telesurgery providers throughout the US are also prime examples.

Deployment challenges notwithstanding, we are at the cusp of dramatic improvements to the quality of care in the healthcare industry. 5G enables the use of multiple, new technologies that can transform healthcare in hospitals and at home. Leaders in the healthcare sector should be ready for massive changes on the way.