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How 5G in healthcare can help IoT, wearables adoption

The combination of IoT devices and 5G can expand the use of healthcare devices for more connected, smarter patient care. 5G can also help with security and interoperability concerns.

IoT is an architectural vision where devices that generate or use data are all connected through a single network. This enables monitoring, management and control of processes and functions in a way unimaginable just a couple decades ago. The IoT paradigm enables situational awareness, automation, streamlining and simplification of its use cases.

In the era of wearable healthcare devices, the healthcare industry has an unprecedented opportunity to revolutionize patient care. Wearables provide an opportunity to oversee patients in a way previously thought impossible, which can dramatically improve diagnostic capabilities, treatment options and patient outcomes.

Like all previous opportunities of this scale, there are also numerous challenges to address.

First, healthcare wearables must be secure. These devices are inherently exposed to the same threats that internet-connected devices face. We must protect patient privacy and confidentiality because it is ethically right and there are legal precedents. Malicious actors must not be able to access, change or tamper with healthcare device data. The system must be trusted and reliable.

Second, healthcare wearables must be affordable. If they are expensive, it will be cost-prohibitive to grow to large scales. Without affordability, healthcare IoT fails.

Third, healthcare wearables must be, at least to some degree, interoperable. Without interoperability, we eventually get locked into proprietary vendor offerings. This model has played out many times historically and always leads to higher costs, lower capabilities and eventual supportability issues.

Fourth, the network that supports healthcare wearables must be scalable to grow and meet whatever required size and bandwidth are needed to support in-hospital infrastructure and the industry.

If healthcare IoT can't meet the challenges of security, affordability, interoperability and scalability, it will likely fail.

Address potential healthcare IoT challenges with 5G

Standardization is one key. Standardization has historically been the biggest enabler in technology cost reduction and interoperability. This doesn't refer to the devices themselves, but how they interact with the external world. With communication protocols and data formats standardized, multivendor offerings become possible and make it easier to implement IoT in healthcare.

5G cellular technology is a key enabler of IoT, and I believe could enable large-scale healthcare wearables as part of healthcare IoT. There are many advantages to using 5G in these devices:

  • Scale. 5G has been developed specifically to scale to dense networks supporting enormous amounts of devices. Few, if any, other current or emerging wireless technologies can match the scalability of 5G.
  • Performance. 5G has higher capacity and lower latency compared to many other technologies. This means that it can support more devices and more data with better performance.
  • Pervasiveness. 5G is, or soon will be, almost everywhere. That is clearly advantageous – no matter where people go, their wearable device will be connected. Many other technologies are more geographically limited, require proximity to other devices or infrastructure and are not ubiquitous.
  • Economies of scale. 5G is being developed to support tens of billions of users. Low-cost 5G modems for wearable devices will be increasingly available at lower costs.
  • Standardization. 5G is a standards-based technology developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). That's why a phone works no matter where it's used. A phone is interoperable with all the 5G networks it encounters because they've all been developed to the same standards.

Looking ahead with 5G and healthcare IoT

5G for healthcare wearables is a no-brainer. It doesn't single-handedly solve every challenge that healthcare IoT poses, but it does start to help address several of the big problems. The biggest challenge is that most current wearables are predicated on connecting to the wearer's cellular device via short-range technologies, such as Bluetooth.

5G adoption requires a paradigm shift. But this shift makes sense, for device makers but also healthcare providers and consumers in general. It's inevitable.

In the current paradigm, health data coming from a wearable often first traverses a short-range technology to an application on a phone. Then, the phone's application, if configured to do so, can share that data with an internet-based data store over the cellular network.

If the wearable had 5G, it would reduce the process time. The wearable device can now communicate directly to internet-based data stores, which cell phone-based applications could still access via the cellular network. This information is also more readily available to authorized third parties. Furthermore, this sensitive health data is now solely traveling across the more secure 5G network, instead of through multiple devices.

Furthermore, because of the strong standardization backing of 5G technology, there is a path toward future capabilities and improved performance. 3GPP continually develops new cellular standards with new features and performance capabilities, often not requiring end-device upgrades.

5G adoption in the healthcare wearable industry is coming and coming soon. Embedded 5G chipsets are becoming cheaper, so it's going to make more and more financial sense. 5G addresses, at least in part, most of the biggest challenges facing healthcare IoT and large-scale healthcare wearables.

It's unlikely 5G will completely replace other incumbent wireless technologies that wearables already use. Rather, I think 5G can be complimentary and coexist with these other wireless technologies in a way where everybody wins. I see this adoption starting in the near term. It may start slow, but in five years, the market will have a lot of 5G-enabled devices.

About the author
Jack L. Burbank is an IEEE senior member and executive director of advanced communications at Sabre Systems, where he helps design, develop and evaluate next-generation wireless capabilities. Burbank is an expert in the areas of wireless networking, modeling and simulation, wireless system development and wireless network security. Burbank earned his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University in 1994 and 1998, respectively.

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