The next generation of wireless communication technology, 5G, could transform healthcare as we know it. In small but astounding ways — such as the fleet of automated robots that took COVID-19 patient temperatures, delivered meals and disinfected a hospital ward in Wuhan, China — it already has.1
The speed, reliability and quality of 5G cannot be underestimated. More than simply a faster way to download movies and message friends, 5G’s technology is capable of speeds 100 times faster than 4G, handling more connections, and with ultra-low latency at near real-time speed.
For healthcare, this is a game-changer in a time when the spread of coronavirus is placing unprecedented stress on healthcare systems around the world and the ability to meet patient and provider needs is more critical than ever. Doing so accurately, efficiently, conveniently, cost-effectively and at substantial scale? Even better.
A new report by PwC, 5G and healthcare: How the new wireless standard can connect a post-COVID healthcare ecosystem, explores the use cases of 5G in the healthcare industry.
5G and health providers
COVID-19 made evident the fact that many healthcare providers, from local GPs to hospitals, live in a manual world when it comes to the inventory of their devices. When demand for ventilators and emergency equipment increased, there was uncertainty over whether or not there were enough devices to treat an increasing surge of patients.
5G would not only allow the equipment to be tracked, it could monitor all kinds of additional variables such as bed occupancy, or even people — including doctors, nurses and patients — as they move throughout the hospital. The ability to visualise and manage hospital activities would provide the basis for great operational improvement.
And of course, 5G could change how medical care was delivered entirely. With telehealth vaulted to the preferred way to see patients in lockdown, there is the potential, with 5G, for it to become more sophisticated. The amount of data a 5G connection can handle, for example, would allow the use of sensors and wearables to monitor vital signs during calls.
It would also enable remote procedures, via the emergence of the ‘tactile internet.’ The ultra-low latency of 5G could allow for computerised equipment to recreate a surgeon’s movements in real time in a separate location, ideal for patients in remote or rural locations who would otherwise be unable to access more specialised procedures.
As its use increases and advances in AI, robotics and IoT continue to be made, a new connected health ecosystem will come into being. It’s one that will, PwC believes, align with the idea of ‘4P medicine’:
- Predictive — We’ve already started to see the future when it comes to AI-enabled technology and wearables predicting risk and early warning signs of health problems. The ability of these devices to collate vital signs, behaviours and social factors, not to mention analysing and then sharing that data in time for doctors to respond effectively before a problem escalates, will depend on the 5G technology underpinning its connectivity.
- Preventative — Being able to predict health issues often means being able to prevent them. During COVID-19 we’ve seen the use of tracing technology by a number of nations to help identify exposure. Combined with geolocation data, diagnostic profiles and testing, such applications could be used to identify those at risk of passing on a contagion, and then prevent that from happening via individualised alerts and intervention.
- Personalised — It’s the dream of many patients and physicians; personalised, always-on healthcare that’s tailored to the individual. That vision is a step closer to reality with 5G networks. Real-time monitoring of patient health — from heart rhythm, to blood sugar levels or blood pressure — without the need for hospitalisation or constant nursing supervision is enabled by sensors and cloud-linked scanners.
- Participatory — Beginning to be seen in the uptake of wearable technology, people are already becoming less passive when it comes to healthcare, preferring to be more engaged in driving their own health outcomes as joint participants. 5G will only enhance this. By actively managing their well-being, diagnostics and treatments, patients will be able to improve their quality of life and medical outcomes, and at the same time, reduce overall costs to the healthcare system.
Privacy, pharmaceutical, payers and more
The above examples are the tip of the iceberg in how 5G can enrich healthcare.There are many additional benefits, such as reducing speed in cycle times for clinical pharmaceutical trials, or the attractive lowering of health costs for insurers and governments alike. But there are also challenges, such as network security and data privacy, to overcome with this new technology. The 5G and healthcare report expands upon these issues in more detail.
As we’ve all been reminded by the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare systems are fragile in the face of disasters. While any 5G use case should be assessed for its advantages in regards to broadband speed, latency and mass connectivity, by combining the wireless standard with other technology, there is an opportunity to transform patient care. Indeed, it may be possible to create a healthcare system that is more connected, more intelligent and more efficient than the one we have today.
For further information on the use of 5G in healthcare, download the full report, 5G and healthcare: How the new wireless standard can connect a post-COVID healthcare ecosystem.