How 5G Could Transform the Delivery of Healthcare

Blog published by CW (Cambridge Wireless), under 5G, Healthcare Applications

This blog has been guest authored by CW Healthcare SIG Champion Nigel Whittle, Head of Medical & Healthcare at Plextek, a leading design and innovation consultancy. It follows on from CW's recent "5G in Healthcare" event.

View presentations from 5G in Healthcare event

Find out more about Plextek

The next telecommunication revolution is just around the corner: 5G or fifth-generation cellular wireless holds out the promise of downloading data at least 10x faster than today’s 4G services.  5G operates primarily on the millimetre spectrum - the band between 30 GHz and 300 GHz - (although other parts of the spectrum may be used for specialist purposes) and is able to transmit large packets of data quickly without clogging the network.  The first noticeable change for consumers will be the fast delivery of communications and entertainment to mobile and fixed devices completely wirelessly.

However 5G telecommunications promises not just high bandwidth, but also low latency (increased responsiveness) and an ability to encompass The Cloud and a host of devices attached to the network.  As a result, the linkage of connected devices through the Internet of Things (IoT) will create increasingly complex networks, while other systems that require massive amounts of data transfer such as autonomous vehicles, robotic surgery, and critical infrastructure monitoring will see big gains in efficiency.

The healthcare industry has a complex regulatory environment and deeply embedded legacy systems which have traditionally slowed the adoption of new technologies.  However it has been said that healthcare is the field that might experience the most changes, and will benefit from countless aspects of 5G technology.

The healthcare industry has a complex regulatory environment and deeply embedded legacy systems which have traditionally slowed the adoption of new technologies.  However it has been said that healthcare is the field that might experience the most changes, and will benefit from countless aspects of 5G technology.

So what does 5G actually mean for the healthcare industry? And more importantly, how will it improve the delivery of healthcare to patients?

Expanding Telemedicine

One of the biggest challenges in medicine is enabling patients to see their personal doctors in a timely manner.  The advent of telemedicine networks that can wirelessly support real-time high-quality video may provide a solution to this problem.  Patients could then talk to their doctors from home or work-places, which should make scheduling appointments easier and also allow increasing centralisation of general practitioners.  In fact this process is continuing regardless, so telemedicine could cut down on wasted travel time, and help patients and doctors maintain their personal engagement, while allowing doctors and other staff to collaborate efficiently.

5G also brings seamless connection, removing any need to switch between in-building Wi-Fi networks and mobile networks, and allows the integration of a plethora of incompatible IoT radio networks into a single network.  The ability to maintain uninterrupted communication will be invaluable for many telemedicine applications, particularly since the low latency of 5G will allow doctors and nurses to monitor patients in real time.  When the technology is fully utilized patients will get treated sooner and have increased access to specialists otherwise not available.

Remote Medicine and Emergency Care

The delivery of effective treatment in an emergency is critical.  5G technology brings the opportunity for paramedics to transmit images, data and detailed information from ambulances en route to the hospital to prepare doctors for treatment.  Equally, high-quality video links may allow paramedics to conduct emergency treatment or assess and diagnose patients at the scene with the assistance of an on-line specialist.

In the event of large scale civil emergencies such as technology attacks, situational awareness can be greatly enhanced through the use of drones with real-time 4K video cameras, traffic monitoring and rerouting systems, people location, and apps for delivery of important public information.  In addition, the enhanced capabilities provided by 5G could allow disaster response organisations to deploy predictive analytics, machine learning applications and artificial intelligence systems while the emergency is ongoing.

Plextek drone5G can enable drones to deliver healthcare support to hard to reach areas following, for example, natural disasters

Transmission of Large Image Files

Western healthcare systems produce a tsunami of data every day.  It has been estimated that in 2020 over 2,300 exabytes of data[1] will be produced.  The vast majority of this is digitised images such as MRI scans, X-ray images and other files generated by imaging machines. 

These files are typically very large, but often must be shared for review with other clinicians and specialists.  Delays in transmission caused by limited bandwith can limit the number of patients seen or cause delays in the treatment pathway.  Implementation of 5G networks in hospitals and other healthcare settings could alleviate these issues and radically improve access to data.

Artificial Intelligence

As is implied by their sheer size, analysis of medical images is a daunting task.  The challenge for clinicians is to interpret their complexity and dynamic changes, which can be time-consuming, and prone to errors due to visual fatigue.  Recent advances in machine learning systems have demonstrated that computers can extract more information from images with an increase in reliability and accuracy, and can extract novel features that would otherwise not be easily detectable by human viewers.  This can range from analysis of large numbers of images from screening programmes to enhanced diagnosis of specific problems such as fractures.

The large amounts of data used in real-time machine learning require ultra-reliable and high-bandwidth networks, particularly if clinicians wish to access data from mobile devices.  By switching to high capacity 5G networks, healthcare organizations can use appropriate Machine Learning systems to provide the best care possible from wherever they are in the hospital or clinic.

Real-Time Remote Monitoring

An ageing population has made care of the elderly an increasingly important role for the healthcare system.  Many remote monitoring devices and systems have been developed in recent years, from fall detectors, to movement recorders, to monitors of electricity usage.  Use of these IoT devices can allow healthcare providers to monitor patients and gather data in order to improve personalized and preventive care.

plextek connected home

5G can improve the monitoring and care of patients at home, improving the efficiency of GP surgeries and hospitals.

Despite the obvious benefits, remote monitoring technology usage is limited by the capacity of the network to handle the data.  Implementation of 5G technology in the home, with lower latency and higher capacity, can give confidence that healthcare providers will receive the data they need in real time and will enable high levels of care for the elderly, allowing them to stay in their homes for as long as possible.

Mobile Robotic Surgery

Performing remote robotic-assisted surgery will become feasible with a high-capacity 5G network.  Initial work has involved telementoring in which a specialist oversees a critical surgical operation, relying on high-quality images and low latency for rapid feedback.  There have now been reports that the first real telesurgery has been conducted in China, in which a brain stimulation device was implanted in a patient using robotic equipment operated by controllers at a remote location. 

Controlling surgery remotely in this way is only possible if the data connection and network is rapid, broad, reliable and secure.  But the ultra-low latency of 5G networks could eventually also allow surgical robotics to incorporate haptic feedback, so that surgeons actually feel the effect of their instruments during an operation.

Conclusions

5G brings latency low enough to provide real-time information either to deliver live HD video to a paramedic or to enable remote surgery.  Its high bandwidth enables doctors to keep in contact with patients or the elderly, or to transmit and analyse large data files.  Its reliability and security enhances communications within hospitals and other care providers.  5G technology is set to have a transformative impact on healthcare. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nigel Whittle

Nigel is Head of Medical & Healthcare at Plextek, spearheading engagement with a range of clients in the medical device sector, helping them develop innovative technology around sensors, data collection, communications and related areas. Nigel has over 25 years’ experience in the global life science industry, in a wide range of senior scientific, commercial and managerial roles. He conducted research work at Genentech and Celltech, then at Cantab Pharmaceuticals he was responsible for all company product development, taking proprietary products into late-stage Clinical Trials. With the IP Group he established a programme of technology commercialisation from Kings College London, including start up and flotation of companies. Later, working for UK Trade & Investment, Nigel worked with a portfolio of overseas pharmaceutical companies to secure high-level investment into the UK’s R&D capabilities. More recently he has worked as a business consultant both as an independent and at Sagentia. His current interests include the development of wearable technology to support clinical studies, and the use of monitoring systems for assisted living.


[1]
Harnessing the Power of Data in Health, Stanford Medicine 2017 Health Trends Report

CW's thanks go to Plextek for providing this guest blog. We welcome contributions from all CW members. Contact hello@cambridgewireless.co.uk to find out more.

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