5G connectivity brings latency low enough to provide real-time information that will advance telemedicine and revolutionise future healthcare delivery.
An example of this could be seen at the beginning of 2020, whereby healthcare providers rapidly adopted telehealth solutions to maintain social distancing measures and limit the spread of the virus. In addition to this, smartphones and improved cameras in laptops have enabled remote sessions or general practice (GP) appointment, which significantly streamline the process of healthcare professionals catching up with their patients.
The development of wearables
Initially, wearable devices were primarily targeted at consumers wanting to monitor and track their personal exercise and health data. But this is no longer the case, as health professionals reap the sophisticated benefits wearables offer. This is mainly due to the expansion of capabilities and addition of abilities the devices have, which can monitor other body functions, as seen with recent electrocardiograms (ECGs). Professionals can now utilise wearables to access a patient’s data in extreme detail, which can then be used for analysis and live monitoring.
5G will enable emergency medical technician (EMTs) to share data more easily than ever before, and allow surgical specialists to deliver remote surgery at even greater distances, regardless of the time zone. Remote surgery can limit the need for patients to travel and for patients sick/injured in remote locations in need of immediate surgery. Although patient monitoring is significantly enhanced, health-related visits are reduced, the vast adoption of smart devices and increased connectivity will mean a colossal amount of healthcare data is available. It is widely known that many wearable devices enable real-time data sharing and diagnostics, so it will be essential that data is secured and managed going forward. Without this patient trust, and uses of the devices, will decline and the advantages of 5G lost.
The impact of smart devices and ‘big data’
5G enhances the ability to collect and share larger volumes of data in an instant. This improves care by picking up medical events that may have been missed during a regular exam. Wearables allow a patient to share data on their condition with their doctor, which improves response times, and enables doctors to suggest whether a hospital or clinic visit is actually needed. Within hospital environments, IoT devices allow patients to be monitored far more regularly, which eases nurses’ workloads. This is important for obvious reasons, such as allowing them to identify and focus on the patients most in need of care.
To put it into perspective, a nurse could manage an integrated hospital monitoring system, similar to how an Air Traffic Management system is used. By using this system, the nurse can keep track of patients’ conditions and identify any false alarms. In fact, false alarms are a common issue for hospital healthcare workers, and these are typically caused by equipment issues including lose leads or failed sensors.
It is inevitable that the extended connections of individuals, as well as the interconnection of devices in hospitals, will result in cyber security risks. This means it will be absolutely essential for operations to be as secure and safe as possible. One way to approach this is with encrypting patient data and controlling access, but this will require the development of security as part of system design. Security should not be viewed as an ‘add on’ to a design and privacy requirements need to be addressed from the on-set. With this, it is expected that more patients will become savvier towards how their data is managed and want greater control over who or what has it. Therefore, systems will need to support these operations.
Challenges to overcome
Although 5G has provided opportunities within the healthcare sector, bandwidth remains an issue, particularly in less-connected, rural areas. Because of this, it is very likely that expanding 5G coverage to developing areas will be a top priority. We’ll see an increased use in satellite constellations to deliver 5G. Not only will this improve the overall delivery of services, but it will also mean doctors can treat more patients at any given time, removing the need for individuals to travel to hospitals and clinics for treatments or consultations.
Going forward, 5G will expand the reach of medical services and provide patients with greater options for treatment methods. In turn, healthcare providers will see their reach expand and the need for more technology in their practices. However, this means hospitals will need to continue integrating functions and adopt more innovative devices, as they look to continue improving treatment and make staff members jobs more efficient.
Medical device manufacturers and service providers have a tough job ahead of them and will need to meet rising expectations, especially as they look to provide reliable access and ensure privacy protection, which will be essential in the coming years.