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Promises for 5G in healthcare are great, but it's still early days

Analysts offer insight into how 5G works, where it might make the most impact in healthcare and why some of what 5G may offer is more promise than reality.

Imagine a patient lying on an operating table, a robotic arm hovering above, transmitting real-time video to a doctor who is 300 miles away performing the operation.

Although it's years away from reality, remote robotic surgeries like this may be possible, thanks to the high-speed, low-latency capabilities of the fifth-generation cellular wireless network, according to Chris Antlitz, a telecom analyst at consultancy Technology Business Research Inc.

"There are all kinds of different use cases for 5G in healthcare, some of them are a little more science fiction-y than others," he said.

As with the arrival of previous generations of wireless networks, carriers like Verizon Wireless and AT&T are touting the benefits of a 5G network, including connecting more devices to the bandwidth, faster real-time connections and less buffering. The potential seems great, but it's still early days. The network is only just being rolled out.

Analysts believe it will be at least three years before the 5G network gains traction and more widespread commercial availability, but even longer before it takes hold in healthcare. While healthcare CIOs don't need to decide whether to invest now, experts say it's not too soon to start planning and talking to carriers.

What is 5G?

There are all kinds of different use cases for 5G in healthcare, some of them are a little more science fiction-y than others.
Chris AntlitzTelecom analyst, Technology Business Research

5G is an upgrade to the current fourth-generation (4G) Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wireless network.

The 5G network will transmit data at a theoretical peak of 20 GBps, while 4G only reaches a peak speed of 1 GBps. Latency, or the delay before data transfer, is also expected to drop from 10 milliseconds with 4G to 1 millisecond with 5G. The new network will offer more available bandwidth, which means an uptick in the amount of data transmitted.

The 5G network will rely on small cells, or wireless transmitters and receivers, to transmit large amounts of data at high speeds over short distances. According to Verizon's website, the carrier has spent the last several years building out small cell sites in towns and cities to enhance the current 4G LTE network, while also laying the groundwork for 5G. While cell towers provide coverage over long distances, small cells enable stronger coverage in more densely populated areas.

Small cell technology supports transmitting signals over millimeter wave spectrum, a high-frequency radio wave with a short range that the 5G network will use to transmit more data at faster speeds. Small cells are roughly the size of a mini fridge, according to Verizon, and are mounted on tall structures, like utility poles and rooftops.

"It's going to be faster," Antlitz said. "Your download times are going to get lower. There's going to be less latency, so the buffering is going to be practically nonexistent when you're downloading files or streaming."

Rajesh Ghai, research director for IDC's carrier network infrastructure research program, said 5G's abilities to connect more devices and people together will affect some areas of healthcare, such as virtual reality. Yet these new capabilities will require 5G network slicing, which Ghai said won't occur for the next two to three years.

Network slicing enables a carrier to offer customers a virtual network or a portion of the network to attain, in the case of 5G, greater speed and data capacity. Doing so would mean a healthcare organization could continue to be a 4G LTE shop but use 5G for specific use cases, he said.

5G could benefit existing capabilities in healthcare

The 5G network will enhance existing capabilities in healthcare, and Technology Business Research's Antlitz believes CIOs should look to telemedicine as a "low-hanging fruit" and initial 5G use case.

"5G can revolutionize healthcare from that perspective," Antlitz said. "It's basically just video conferencing. It's a real-time, high-resolution, no buffering type experience that you can't get with 4G."

5G features and benefits for healthcare

Jeff Becker, an analyst at Forrester Research, echoed Antlitz's comments. He said telehealth is limited by low speeds and internet connectivity issues, especially in rural areas.

"We would see 5G as an opportunity to alleviate that problem," he said. "Expanding access to high-speed internet to support telehealth is one area where you'll see folks starting to get excited."

Becker said another area of impact for 5G in healthcare is remote patient monitoring, which is closely coupled with telehealth.

Remote monitoring tools are already used today, but 5G will expand monitoring capabilities, Becker said. Today, patients with diabetes log their blood sugar levels over time and then bring the logs to their next appointment. Next-generation monitoring tools will feed data in real time into a healthcare organization's cloud portal where it's analyzed by AI algorithms. But because of the volume of data generated, the tools require more bandwidth, something 5G brings to the table, he said.

"In remote areas where we're limited on how well we can stand up remote patient monitoring programs, there's another area for opportunity," he said.

Antlitz believes cutting the wire on medical devices such as X-rays and MRIs within a hospital environment is another potential use case, saying that it "opens up all kinds of different scenarios in terms of why 5G could be superior to how we've been processing and transmitting data that comes in from this equipment."

According to a letter from the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), making medical diagnostic equipment mobile so that they can be taken to patients' rooms will result in productivity gains. The letter, sent to a Senate subcommittee in February, detailed where CHIME officials foresee the greatest impacts of 5G in healthcare.

Making the impossible, possible

While telemedicine and remote patient monitoring may provide some of the first concrete use cases for 5G in healthcare, the new network is also being tied to more far-fetched capabilities as well, such as remote surgery.

IDC's Ghai said doctors will potentially be able to operate on patients from remote locations, thanks to 5G's promises of reduced latency, as well as instant high-definition image transmission.

Although more of a skeptic, Forrester's Becker said the advancement in remote surgery could play a significant role in war zones or natural disaster areas where the hardwire infrastructure has been compromised.

Frost & Sullivan analyst Michael Jude was even more skeptical. He said healthcare organizations would be "crazy" to try remote surgery over a wireless network. Connection reliability rather than latency is a bigger issue, he said.

Although carriers say 5G will be more reliable than 4G, Jude said the required antenna density to perform something like a remote surgery would be "extraordinary," and antennas would have to be built on "practically everything."

"I would characterize telesurgery by wireless as being sometime in the not near future because I think it would be really hard to do with any kind of acceptable reliability," Jude said.

Remote surgery isn't the only sci-fi example of using 5G in healthcare. Layering artificial intelligence and virtual reality with a 5G network could further enable haptic technology, or artificial touch technology, Antlitz said.

If a small camera inserted into a patient's brain transmits a 5G signal, AI algorithms can create a three-dimensional model of the brain in virtual reality, helping the doctor better identify anomalies such as tumors. Traditionally, doctors look at a two-dimensional screen, Antlitz said.

"With two-dimensional, you lose some of the depth perception and you can't see certain things, like around corners, and the veins, their trajectories within that environment," he said. "So it could improve patient outcomes dramatically."

And yet despite the promises of 5G in healthcare and despite the new network's potential impact on the industry, analysts caution CIOs: The road ahead is still long.

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