How the Expansion of 5G Will Transform Telemedicine and Health-Care Delivery

Article By : Paul J. Kostek

With increased bandwidth, 5G connectivity brings latency low enough to provide real-time information that will advance telemedicine and revolutionize future health-care delivery.

The advent of 5G cellular service will improve far more than just everyday phone calls. With increased bandwidth, 5G connectivity brings latency low enough to provide real-time information that will advance telemedicine and revolutionize future health-care delivery.

Telemedicine.

Consider the developments that arose as a result of the Covid pandemic. Health-care providers quickly adopted telehealth solutions to maintain social-distancing measures and limit the spread of the virus — what was once a pipedream swiftly became a reality. Smartphones and improved cameras in laptops enabled remote sessions or general practice appointments, making it far easier for patients to catch up with their doctors.

Of course, bandwidth was still an issue, especially in rural areas. Therefore, expanding 5G coverage to developing areas will no doubt be a top priority. It will improve overall health-care delivery and enable doctors to reach far more patients at any given time, as it removes the need for people to travel to hospitals and clinics for exams or sessions.

Naturally, with increased connectivity and the adoption of smart devices, the volume of available health-care data will increase tenfold. Wearables will enable real-time data sharing and diagnostics, improving patient monitoring and limiting the need for doctor visits. In fact, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) will be able to share data far more easily, and specialists will be able to deliver remote surgery at even greater distances — regardless of time zones.

The rise of ‘big data’ and smart devices

When wearables first appeared, they were targeted at consumers and designed for users’ personal health and exercise data. As capabilities have expanded and the ability to monitor other body functions has been added, as seen with recent electrocardiograms, doctors now have the ability to access far more detailed data, which can be used for live patient monitoring and analysis.

The advent of 5G will improve the ability to collect and share larger volumes of data in an instant. It can improve care by catching medical events that might be missed during a regular exam. Wearables will allow a patient to share data on their condition with their doctor, improving response times, and enable doctors to intervene and suggest whether a hospital or clinic visit is needed. Whilst in hospitals, IoT devices will allow patients to be monitored far more regularly, easing nurses’ workload by allowing them to identify and focus on the patients most in need.

In fact, an integrated hospital monitoring system could be managed by a nurse, similar to an air traffic management system, by keeping track of patients’ conditions, identifying false alarms, and ensuring real alarms are addressed by the nursing team. A common issue for hospital health-care workers is alarm fatigue, caused by false alarms. These are typically caused by equipment issues such as a calibration failure, failed sensors, or lost leads. An integrated system would enable staff to identify and prioritize emergencies far more effectively and establish those that simply require recovery from procedures or who are resting.

Remote surgery: delivering equitable health care

While robotic surgery has been utilized for years, remote surgery performed by a surgeon located in distant areas is now possible. In fact, a surgeon could now work from his facility and control the entire procedure from end to end.

Naturally, improved bandwidth will eliminate the problem of a time lag in the communications between devices, allowing the surgeon to get immediate feedback on the steps. In turn, this will enable surgeons to perform an operation without being in the same geographical area or time zone. This would provide patients with access to a range of surgical specialists, eliminating the delays or risks associated with traveling to a distant hospital or, in an emergency situation, allowing surgery to begin as soon as possible.

This will drastically improve health-care accessibility and the equity of health-care delivery. It will also increase the learning and training opportunities for medical students around the world, especially in developing countries that require specialists or expert knowledge transfer. Now, students will be able to assist with surgeries and develop the necessary skills to provide improved access for patients.

Telecare delivery and future challenges

Of course, with the extended connections of individuals and the interconnection of devices in hospitals, cybersecurity will become essential for secure and safe operations. Encrypting patient data and controlling access will require the development of security as part of system design — security can no longer be an “add on” to a design. Privacy requirements will need to be addressed. Patients will need to have greater control over their data and be able to decide who has access and who does not, so systems will need to support these operations.

The advent of 5G will expand the reach of medical services, providing patients with greater options for treatment methods and how these are received. In turn, health-care providers will see their reach also expand and the need for more technology in their practices. Hospitals will need to continue to integrate their functions and adopt more devices as they look to improve treatment and make better use of their staff. 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.

This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.

Paul J. Kostek, IEEE senior member and systems engineer, Air Direct Solutions LLC

 

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