In just five years’ time, the worldwide digital health market is set to hit a phenomenal $504 billion (£384bn) – almost on par with the entire global smartphone market.
Technology is such a cornerstone of the future of healthcare, the NHS’s Long Term Plan is almost entirely underpinned on the rise and adoption of digital services. In the US, Deloitte believes tech has the potential to completely disrupt how we think about healthcare, and every tech giant, from Apple to Google and Amazon, is seemingly dipping its respective toe in the healthtech waters.
This demand is, in part, due to an increasingly ageing population putting a strain on traditional services; it’s linked to the rise of generations who have never known a world without tech but fundamentally, it’s driven by our global desire for data. This is where 5G comes in.
Alongside the promise of faster downloads and more reliable streaming, the increased speed and connection density afforded by 5G technology has the power to transform healthcare as we know it.
The rise of digital diagnostics
1. How 5G will transform telehealth
Analysts predict the use of telehealth will triple by 2025, fuelled largely by 5G. Such services, like the NHS’ GP at Hand, offer video appointments over the phone. Other projects, such as the Liverpool 5G Health and Social Care’s digital pharmacy partner, PAMAN, allow pharmacists to observe patients taking their medications remotely via video/audio link.
Yet many rely on high-quality video run over wired networks. With 5G, healthcare systems will be able to offload these services to mobile networks, reducing the cost while increasing their reach. It will also mean rural areas will finally get access to the kind of services largely reserved urban dwellers.
“To take advantage of these technologies you need a fast and reliable wireless connection that supports a large amount of data and not everybody can afford one,” said Rosemary Kay, Liverpool 5G Health and Social Care Project Lead. “By embracing and harnessing 5G, we can transform people’s lives for the better. People with long-term conditions like diabetes can take medication independently, freeing up the time and cost of carers making home visits.”
2. 5G and AI
A number of healthtech initiatives, particularly those from the likes of Google and Amazon, are powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence. AI can be used to spot whether a mole could be cancerous, or to identify which diseases you’re most at risk from, but it relies on the processing of vast amounts of data over reliable, high-bandwidth networks that aren’t always accessible to all.
By moving to high-bandwidth 5G mobile networks, reams of data can be processed and accessed on-the-go and shared more easily from anywhere, making the health benefits more widely available. What’s more, the higher the number of people using AI-powered services, the greater the dataset and, theoretically, the more accurate the results.
3. 5G and medical file sharing
Files generated by MRI scanners, X-rays and other high-resolution imaging machines have to be incredibly large – in the region of 1GB for each patient – in order to capture the smallest of details needed to make a diagnosis.
Sending these files to specialists puts a strain on hospital bandwidth; impacting network performance for more critical tasks while slowing down the review process, potentially delaying diagnosis of a life-threatening condition. 5G will make this process more efficient, meaning a patient can start treatment sooner and a doctor can help more people.
4. 5G and wearable health sensors
Beyond speed, 5G technology increases the number of devices that connect to a network while decreasing the latency of such devices. This opens the door for billions more IoT sensors like those found in wearables to come online, particularly in healthcare.
These sensors can be used to send data to doctors, allowing them to closely monitor a patient’s observations, spot any changes to their health and react in real-time. Wearables could be so impactful in this way, they’re predicted to cut hospital costs by 16% over the next five years.
Robot surgeons, virtual cadavers and connected ambulances
5. The rise of 5G hospitals
5G’s lower latency times also pave the way for robotic surgeries to be performed remotely. Such operations rely on split-second reaction times between a surgeon in one location making an incision and a robot’s corresponding response in another. Robotic surgeries allow specialists to perform operations from another country, and evidence has shown their pinpoint precision can cut recovery times and reduce blood loss.
The US Air Force is training surgeons to perform remote surgery in this way using its Da Vinci System. In January 2019, a Chinese surgeon reportedly used robotic arms connected to a 5G network to remove the liver of a lab test animal from a remote location 30 miles away, and in the UK this summer, West Midlands 5G (WM5G) with BT showed how ambulances connected to 5G can help paramedics more effectively diagnose patients before they arrive at the hospital.
”Using the speed and real-time nature of 5G, doctors can guide paramedics to conduct complex procedures, such as ultrasound scans, remotely,” explained Lesley Holt, stakeholder engagement lead at WM5G. “This enables conditions to be diagnosed faster and the right medical support provided as soon as the patient arrives at the hospital. This is just one example but it demonstrates 5G’s potential to transform time-critical areas such as emergency services and healthcare.”
6. 5G and virtual medical training
The power of 5G networks to provide a steady, reliable stream for HD video will also see significant leaps in the development of augmented, virtual and mixed reality programs in healthcare. Such programs are being used to provide “hands-on” training for medical professionals at Case Western University, while surgeons in London are using Microsoft’s Hololens to “see inside” patients before operations.
Chair Professor in Wireless Communications at King’s College London, Mischa Dohler calls this the Internet of Skills and believes it’s 5G’s most “revolutionary paradigm shift” both locally and on a global scale.
“Imagine delivering equipment to areas suffering from the Ebola epidemic,” said Professor Dohler. “The best doctors and surgeons could perform diagnosis remotely using connected technologies. This would allow aid workers and medical experts to contribute to the Ebola response operation without risking their own lives or bringing the virus back home.”
Digital therapeutics as the future of treatment
7. 5G and treatment simulations
Beyond using virtual programs to train medical staff, robust 5G networks and their ability to handle billions of data points will enable programs built to simulate all the possible outcomes for a particular form of treatment for a patient.
Doctors could, for example, run simulations of whether a certain type of chemotherapy would work for a particular cancer and the likelihood of it succeeding based on a person’s genetic data, lifestyle or the drugs being used.
8. 5G and digital therapeutics
Scientific studies have shown that VR, in particular, has the power to reduce anxiety and other symptoms in mental health patients and digital therapeutics, generally, are set to be a huge beneficiary of 5G. Dementia patients can use VR to boost their memories, for instance, while VR can be used to treat people with eating disorders, reducing their negative reactions to images of food.
With the speeds and range offered by 5G, such programs – which currently rely on wired networks with expensive, specialist hardware installed in clinical settings – will be more accessible. They’ll be able to connect to 5G networks on-the-go, opening up opportunities to treat more people in their own homes and in remote locations.
9. 5G and switching healthcare from reactive to preventative
Possibly 5G’s greatest promise when it comes to healthcare, and one that underpins each of those mentioned, is that it enables us to switch fundamental practices from reactive to preventative. The ability to handle millions of data points and send them to billions of devices and sensors, without delay, enhances the value of such data.
5G-powered systems and networks could study our genetic code to warn us about individual, future disease risks so we can take steps to avoid them today, for example. Or they could reveal potential complications following an operation, based on our lifestyle, diet and habits, meaning doctors could factor these into our recovery plans. All the while, these networks would be helping to reduce the number of patients being treated, and the costs involved in treating them.
10. 5G and health data security
Despite its benefits, there is a dark side to the surge in data expected to come as a result of the rise of 5G, though. The more data points being created, the greater the risk of this data being exposed to hackers. This is true across all industries but will be felt most acutely in healthcare due to the highly sensitive nature of people’s medical records.
“5G will be the most fundamental game-changing technology to impact the cybersecurity landscape – maybe ever,” Dan Schiappa, Chief Product Officer at Sophos told 5GRadar. “5G promises to connect almost all aspects of life through the network with game-changing speed and lower latency, but it will also introduce significant security risks.”
Early 5G networks, due to their reliance on existing 4G infrastructure, will suffer from many of the current vulnerabilities. However, the plus side to this is that, as Schiappa continues, “it will require us to put an even greater focus on the security of our connections, devices and applications.” This increased scrutiny will work to enhance security so, by the time full, standalone 5G networks go live, all traffic data and its integrity will be better protected, and protected at source.