The Benefits & Challenges of 5G in Healthcare

October 23, 2019 - 9 minutes read

medical app developer5G is coming soon to your mobile carrier, office, and home. This fifth generation of mobile technology will improve connectivity, coverage, and responsiveness of wireless connections. 5G will reduce the 20 milliseconds of latency time usually experienced with 4G by 95% to only 1 millisecond. On top of this, Verizon has measured speeds of 1 gigabit per second (100 times faster than 4G).

Your local hospitals and clinics will be taking advantage of this high-speed, low-latency network to improve patient outcomes and optimize workflows. Medical technology, like robotics, mobile devices, and medical devices will all benefit from faster data transfer and analytics. But this increased connectivity will come at a price: our IT infrastructure and IoT systems will be strained and bandwidth will be spread across more end points and devices.

With that said, let’s delve into some of the benefits and challenges that 5G will bring to healthcare.

Better Healthcare and Technology

5G is bringing a better experience to patients, higher-quality work-life balance to providers, and more savings to hospitals and insurance companies. Let’s see how.

Faster Data Transfers

With 5G, downloading and uploading giant files with tons of data and images, like MRIs and PET scans, will be faster, more reliable, and executed in the background. To put things in perspective, the Austin Cancer Center’s PET scanner’s files can be up to a gigabyte per patient per procedure. With current network speeds, uploading these files can take hours if the upload isn’t interrupted by a network failure. This affects patients who have to wait longer for treatment and providers who cannot see other patients while the file download resolves itself. Fortunately, 5G will drastically cut down this time to be nonexistent.

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Video calls (or “telemedicine”) will become more commonplace with providers and their patients. These calls will enable higher-quality video and audio, allowing patients to directly show their doctors the problem area. Ideally, patients will get treatment sooner and be able to get in touch with their provider even when they’re across the world. Providers, on the other hand, would be able to collaborate and communicate with other physicians more efficiently.

A report by Market Research Future forecasts that the telemedicine market will grow by 16.5% from 2017 to 2023. The rollout of 5G will be an integral component in making this happen.

More Personalized Care

5G allows providers and medical developers to create a more personalized patient experience. One of the pillars at the center of this improved experience is wearables. Wearables will generate and analyze data in real-time, notifying the patient or their provider when necessary. An Anthem study found that 86% of doctors said that wearables already improved patient engagement about their own health. These small medical devices are expected to decrease hospital costs by 16% by 2024. Experts say that 5G will enable devices to use less power, and that’s a huge advantage for wearables, which all remotely monitor the patient in the background.

Shafiq Rab, MD is the senior VP and chief information officer at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. Dr. Rab says that the medical center has high hopes and expectations for 5G: “Imagine sometime in the not too distant future, for example, a doctor performing a virtual visit with a patient while downloading an entire MRI scan within seconds.” That’s the future 5G unlocks for providers, patients, and insurance companies.

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Futuristic Applications

Regarding remote robotic surgery, patients have mixed feelings. Almost 50% of consumers said they’re fine with remote robotic surgery, but 61% also mentioned their concerns with our current internet speeds, according to Ericsson.

Using augmented reality, spatial computing, and virtual reality, expert doctors will be able to teach each other procedures and methods for practice in real-time. No longer will a doctor have to learn a brand-new procedure from the literature; he or she can make an appointment with the leading expert and get a personalized lesson. Another life-changing application will be for terminally ill patients in hospice: AT&T is working with VITAS Healthcare to mix 5G with AR to provide an AR and VR experience to decrease anxiety and pain in patients.

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Challenges

Nothing has benefits without seeing some major consequences. Let’s go over some of the foreseen obstacles of connecting 5G to our current healthcare system.

Smaller Range

5G’s not 100% perfect; like all wireless networks, its range can vary wildly from urban to rural settings. In areas where buildings and trees grow tall and wide, 5G faces challenges connecting with devices. To circumvent this, telecom carriers plan to deploy “small cells”, which are cellular antennas or radios the size of a backpack. These devices will be placed every few hundred feet in problem areas, and they’ll number over 2 million by 2021.

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Where there are eyesores like the small cells, consumers won’t be happy. Residents in Oakland, California, are worried about the medical effects of small-cell antennas and the aesthetic look they bring to the neighborhoods. Unfortunately, local residents and government cannot do anything about the placement of small cells; in 2018, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) placed additional restrictions on how much a city can regulate 5G.

Hidden Costs

The implementation and application of 5G, its necessary infrastructure upgrades, and maintenance schedules won’t be cheap. Consumers are expected to pay much of this cost, but it’s unknown exactly how much. A study by McKinsey & Company shows that mobile carriers will look to offset these increased costs with new strategies. “They will need to explore more alternative approaches, such as network sharing (the joint building of new 5G networks) and new revenue models,” the report says.

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A hidden burden for providers is the increased demand by patients for “anytime anywhere” medicine. This won’t be an option for many rural residents for several years, but it won’t stop patients in urban areas from becoming impatient.

Cybersecurity concerns are also a hidden cost for consumers and enterprises alike; many companies and individuals have a lot of data and sensitive information to lose with the implementation of 5G. Medical identity theft, data mismanagement, and health privacy concerns are a risk for every patient.

Equal Access

A major point of contention is the inequality of 5G access for rural versus urban patients. Using small cell technology, the FCC plans to bring 5G to 90% of the U.S. population. But that equates to only 36% of the land in our nation, and experts say widespread coverage won’t happen before 2020.

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Pushing 5G Forward

5G is coming, whether we want it or not. It’ll take some time to reach every corner of the U.S., but we are fortunate to watch the rest of the world implement 5G in small steps and take away learnings from them. Although 5G will bring a host of benefits and advantages to patients and providers, we must also prepare and plan for the big challenges.

What are the benefits of 5G that you’re looking forward to most? What 5G challenges are you most concerned about? As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Do you have an idea for a disruptive medical device, but you don’t know where to begin? Dogtown Media is an FDA-compliant developer with extensive experience in bringing health tech innovations to life.

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