Healthcare continues to be … well … “on the cusp” of incredible technological change. While we continue to lag the adoption rates seen in other industries (appropriately so in many cases, as healthcare is a literal life and death enterprise), recent additions have been incorporated at seeming break-neck speed. Advances in fields like machine learning, sensor technology, and telehealth are already starting to change the way we think about and deliver care. And as these technologies mature, the impact they have will increase. But the real game-changer won’t be any individual technology, or even the sum of the specific advances we make. What will reshape the industry is the value added by how we connect the pieces of the puzzle together. If we get it right, the result will be an intelligent, reliable, human-centered hive that extends across all technical, clinical, and operational domains. And the keystone that will make this future possible is the platform that will connect the parts: 5G.
5G – the fifth generation of mobile communications technology – links wireless devices to cellular networks to offer a level of advanced connectivity that goes far beyond what is currently available. 5G enables upload and download speeds that are up to ten times faster than what is possible with 4G. But what matters even more is the potential unlocked by a hundredfold increase in the number of devices that can connect to the network, together with the lower latency – the amount of time data spends in transit – of 5G connections. Low latency means that time-sensitive data can be handled with greater reliability than previous cellular infrastructure permitted, opening up a wide range of new applications in healthcare. When seconds can make the difference between life and death, as they can when first responders coordinate their responses, 5G can offer truly game-changing capabilities for communications and decision-making.
While coverage is far from universal at present, it is estimated that the number of 5G mobile subscriptions will reach 250 million in North America alone by the end of 2023. The number of private 5G networks worldwide is still small but is growing rapidly in many industries, healthcare included.
5G is often touted as the technology that will power the 4th Industrial Revolution. However, current iterations still face significant challenges. Most importantly for healthcare, data security across networks still has important hurdles to clear. Hyperconnectivity means an increase in opportunities for bad actors to access and extract sensitive data. At the same time, the huge increase in the number of connected devices provides stealthier attack vectors by allowing attackers to benefit from security through obscurity. Even if data can be secured perfectly, additional risks accrue as more and more capabilities come to depend on the stability and low latency of the network. Disruption of connectivity through denial-of-service or jamming attacks can have potentially devastating effects. Consequences could range from potentially fatal, in the case of disrupted telesurgery or robotic surgery, to less immediate but still egregious consequences arising from missed opportunities for care because of lost capacity across a health system.
The hospital of the future
While it might take some time for systems to become sufficiently robust, there is no reason to think that the current limitations on 5G are insurmountable. Once these issues have been solved, it is almost inevitable that 5G will become the backbone of an integrated ecosystem of digital technologies in the hospital of the future. Superfast connectivity will link networks of sensors with processing capacity and machine learning. The capabilities could range from vastly faster and more accurate imaging sharing and analysis, to highly precise remote surgical procedures, to emergency medicine decision support. Combined with edge computing algorithms, 5G connections between remote sensors worn by patients in their own homes, and clinical staff who could be either centralized at a single site or distributed around the country, the concept of ‘the hospital’ itself will extend beyond the physical sites we now think of.
While full implementation is still years away, key parts of the 5G model are already being explored. For instance, several hospitals are using private 5G networks to trial augmented reality (AR) “navigation” apps for surgeons that enable them to see tumors and tissues “inside” a patient’s body by holding a tablet computer over the relevant locations. The Palo Alto VA Medical Center announced in July that it will deploy a private 5G network to serve as the infrastructure for even more ambitious plans. In addition to virtual 3D X-ray vision, projected capabilities include digital twin technologies, “holographic teleportation” to improve the provision of remote care, and AI-enabled clinical decision support tools.
Beyond physical health
The healthcare benefits of 5G connectivity are not limited to improving care for physical ailments. In fact, some of the most exciting developments are likely to emerge from the ability of technology to engage directly with mental health at the neurophysiological level. For instance, while the science is still in its infancy, remote monitoring and analysis of physiological data from people at high risk for suicide could enable clinicians to detect and respond to suicidal thoughts before they can be acted upon, whether they are in a physical hospital or living and working in their community. In other areas, increasingly robust research shows the benefits of certain treatments that can be deployed at greater scale and effectiveness once integrated with 5G.
A great example of this potential is virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The National Center for PTSD, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, estimates that 6% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, often with devastating effects. One well-established intervention for this condition is exposure therapy, which aims to diminish the harmful outcomes of certain stimuli by exposing the patient to them in a controlled environment. Recent research has sought to use virtual reality environments to deliver this exposure, supposing that more realistic stimuli and settings could potentially have a greater impact than exposure therapies based on imagination.
There is now a burgeoning pool of evidence suggesting that VRET is already as effective as other psychotherapies as a treatment for PTSD. However, scaling these interventions within real-world care settings will be difficult under current conditions. The improved data-transfer rates offered by 5G will provide a critical tool for reducing image processing delays and increasing the level of visual immersion that can be delivered by wearable and mobile VR hardware. 5G will also enable the connection of high-quality sensors, AI, and VRET hardware to create a more tailored, and thus more psychologically immersive, experience for the patient.
Modernizing infrastructure does not always seem like it has a burning platform, but maintaining a focus on modernizing practices with a continuous improvement approach sometimes offers more bang for the buck than chasing the latest innovation. The potential of 5G to link the current cacophony of disparate technologies into a “symphony of care” seems clear. Its capabilities, which encompass lightning-fast data speeds and unprecedented device connectivity with minimal latency, unleash a new era of possibilities. In a realm where seconds hold the balance between life and death, the infrastructure investments in 5G will elevate communication, coordination of care delivery, and decision-making to a level that is truly game-changing.