In January of this year, AT&T partnered with Chicago-based Rush System for Health to adopt 5G in its healthcare network. By doing so, Rush claims to be the first healthcare provider in the country to integrate 5G in hospitals. “We strongly believe 5G is a game-changing technology that, when fully implemented, will help us support better hospital operations as well as provide the highest quality patient and staff experience,” said Rush SVP/CIO, Dr Shafiq Rab.
There is no doubt that 5G has the potential to revolutionize many industries. Earlier I’ve covered how the Internet of Things in combination with 5G could radically change the transportation network as we know it. Similarly, its effects on healthcare should not be underestimated.
According to IHS Markit, by 2035, 5G will enable more than $1 trillion in products and services for the global healthcare sector. 5G’s fast and latency-free data speeds will drastically change network capacities — allowing for real-time monitoring and telemedicine, while also forming the backbone of bleeding-edge technologies such as robotic surgery and the Internet of Medical Things.
Let’s expand on the potential of 5G in each of these fields:
Real-Time Patient Data
Much like the Fitbit-Google partnership announced last year, the advent of latency-free 5G networks gives hospitals, physicians, and nurses access to a whole new level of patient data, enabling significantly faster and better care.
As anyone who’s been to the doctor is well aware, a medical professional’s diagnosis and treatment plan is heavily dependent on patients’ previous medical conditions, family history, and key conditions such as allergies. This data is stored in patients’ Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and sometimes these records are significantly large files that need to be transmitted via a hospital’s shared network. 5G alleviates this bottleneck. Real-time access to this data enables faster decision-making, especially in critical or time-sensitive situations. When an emergency patient is on the gurney, every second counts.
Real-time patient monitoring enables vital data to be directly recorded to a patient’s EHR, eliminating manual charts and the data degradation that’s associated with the recording, interpreting, and storing of manual information — while also cutting down the data-entry tasks that take up a hospital’s medical and operational staff’s time.
Similarly, real-time patient monitoring can immediately surface any anomalies or changing patient conditions, and the medical staff can be alerted to provide an immediate response. Of course, sensor-based monitoring also opens up the doors to Internet of Things based devices, which we’ll explore in the coming sections.
You can’t see a doctor if you can’t find one
A key challenge in healthcare has always been getting experienced medical professions to where the patients are. Of course, since patients are everywhere, this challenge has been difficult to solve — particularly in rural and inner city areas. According to the National Rural Health Association, the patient-to-PCP ratio in rural areas is only 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people, almost a third less than in urban areas.
Telemedicine is a relatively new form of medical care that is performed remotely, with the doctor or specialist utilizing telecommunications technology to diagnose and treat patients. Very closely related is the idea of using technology to enable doctor-doctor collaborations on patient care, especially in cases where the two care providers are based in geographically distant locations.
And the telemedicine of the future is much more than a simple Skype session. With 5G coming into the picture, doctors are now able to perform real-time guided surgery.
At Mobile World Congress this year, Dr. Antonio de Lacy guided a surgical team to perform a laparoscopic surgery in near real time — by drawing with his finger on a screen. While doing this, De Lacy mentioned how, before 5G, they had to freeze the screen to draw — which wasn’t ideal since the surgeon had to keep moving.
Did you know that over a whopping 143 million surgeries do not happen globally due to the lack of expertise? De Lacy said that 5G could significantly reduce that number.
This January, a surgeon in the Fujian region of China performed the world’s first 5G powered remote surgery on an animal — from 30 miles away. He credits the operation’s success to 5G’s high-speed data transmission. With a latency as low as 0.1 seconds, 5G is an absolutely essential requirement for robotic surgery, since high visual clarity and an instantaneous response rate is critical.
To go one step further, Verizon’s 5G Incubator in Columbia University aims to transform healthcare by using pre-commercial 5G and VR to allow real-time collaboration between multiple ‘actors’, enabling zero-lag synchronized movements. This technology could pave the way for entire teams collaborating on surgeries, much like in a regular operating theater, while not even being in the same room.
The success of remote robotic surgery and guided surgery is a remarkable breakthrough with far-reaching implications for the entire medical sector. It has the potential to create an online virtual hospital without borders, where patients can be operated upon by high quality doctors from any location and at drastically lower medical costs.
Once paired with real-time monitoring, it opens up an entirely new medical ecosystem — built on the concept of the Internet of Medical Things
The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)
So far, we’ve discussed technologies that automate medical reporting and allow doctors to treat patients from across the world. The culmination of these technologies: real-time monitoring, telemedicine, and robotic surgery, integrated with IoMT-based devices, is the sweet spot where the potential of IoMT gets realized — as a consolidated ecosystem that truly digitizes healthcare.
What are IoMT devices, you ask? Two quick examples:
- Amiko is creating a smart inhaler, Respiro, that gives insights on the patient’s inhaler technique, monitors disease progression, and delivers personalized patient interventions. It was named one of Germany’s top three companies that are digitizing healthcare and is being used in over 20 commercial programs across Europe.
- In the US, Medtronic has released PillcamTM, a line of capsule based cameras that are used for endoscopy — giving doctors a visual esophagus, stomach, small bowel, and colon without using more invasive procedures.
The IoMT devices market is expected to grow into a $136.8 billion dollars industry by 2021 — a CAGR growth rate of 12.5% since 2015 — and this growth is bringing some really interesting products to the forefront.
For hundreds of wireless medical devices in a patient’s vicinity to work synchronously while collecting and uploading large datasets, raising alerts to medical personnel, administering medicine, and sharing the instructions of an AI-based processor — we see the need for a robust network architecture that only 5G can provide.
In a healthcare facility, 5G holds the potential to tie these technologies together into a truly Internet of Things-based implementation — with folks like Rush and AT&T strongly banking on this happening in the coming few years. While a lot of this seems speculative, keep in mind that many of the breakthroughs discussed here, especially in telemedicine and robotics, occurred just earlier this year!
As Mo Katibeh, CMO of AT&T Business puts it, “Imagine a hospital where rooms are intelligently scheduled, patient care is enhanced with artificial intelligence, and augmented reality is used in training medical students. It sounds like the future, but it’s not that far off.”
Like any other next generation technology, there is tremendous buzz and optimism around how 5G will revolutionize the healthcare sector.
Not all of it will be easy though. There will be sizable roadblocks prior to widespread adoption, as we factor in issues like (1) amount of financial investment, (2) adoption of technological upgrades to existing medical care systems, (3) cooperation between healthcare providers, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and regulators, and (4) ensuring the security of highly confidential medical data.
However, the benefits of adopting 5G to healthcare systems, with adequate safeguards, is well worth the financial investment. It has the potential to remove geographical boundaries, lower cost (after the initial investment), enable better healthcare delivery, and most importantly, dramatically cut down on the loss of life.