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5G in healthcare – How prepared are we?

While 5G promises mass adoption of cutting-edge technologies to people from all socioeconomic strata, huge investments will be required by the government and the healthcare organizations to realize this.

The fifth-generation cellular wireless technology, very commonly known as 5G, is perhaps, the latest buzzword in recent times. This technology promises incredibly high speed and humongous connectivity. Transforming every sector that it touches, 5G guarantees a tectonic shift in the healthcare sector. While possibilities are endless, the applications of 5G in healthcare portrays a promising picture of the healthcare ecosystem, one that can fulfill the needs of the patient as well as the healthcare provider precisely, effectively, easily, cost-effectively, and at scale.

The government has been highly focused on digitization of the healthcare eco-system to upscale the country’s public healthcare delivery system by pro-actively employing information and communication technology under the prime objective of Digital India, with the introduction of 5G technology being the basis of the plan. Both government and healthcare professionals have high hopes that this this will propel the growth of digitization of the healthcare ecosystem. They are of the view that the digitization of healthcare, based on 5G platforms, will lead to an advanced healthcare system, which is more inclusive and accessible.

Importance of 5G in healthcare
Patient value (obtained result divided by costs per patient to get the results) has been steadily declining, consequently raising healthcare costs. Furthermore, there is a growing situation about medical resource imbalances, ineffective healthcare system administration, and unfriendly medical experiences.

To address these issues, technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, big data, and artificial intelligence (AI), are being developed to improve the patient experience and healthcare service quality, while lowering total healthcare costs.
5G technology is poised to exert a significant impact on the healthcare ecosystem. The healthcare business is projected to see the largest improvements as a result of 5G’s high bandwidth, low latency, and low-power, low-cost.

This technology has the potential to solve existing problems by providing unique features that are particularly beneficial to healthcare, such as high data transfer rates, extremely low latency (delay in data transmission response system), connectivity and capacity, high bandwidth, and durability per unit area. Thanks to 5G, healthcare stakeholders will be able to restructure, transition to holistic data-driven tailored care, optimize medical resource use, provide care delivery convenience, and increase patient value.

Trends in the healthcare sector that favor the introduction of 5G
A change in the demography. As per United Nations, the global population is expected to increase from 7.7 billion to 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050. Life expectancy rates are expected to rise. In 2018, people over the age of 65 outnumbered children under the age of five for the first time in history. The demand for home care is increased by the ageing population and the incidence of chronic or lifestyle diseases has led to a rise in remote patient monitoring systems.

Progression to value-based, patient-focused healthcare. As the focus shifts from financial incentives to rewards, based on patient outcomes rather than visit counts, the health service provider sector evolves toward value-based care. To significantly contribute to value-based care, 85 percent of hospitals and the health system have already invested in or plan to invest in remote patient monitoring technologies. Changing to value-based care may assist patients with chronic illnesses and reduce their chances of being admitted to the hospital.

Big data analytics. Oncology, neurology, cardiology, and other fields of medicine have all seen a significant impact from big data. A significant amount of patient-specific data has been gathered, thanks to the widespread usage of wearable technology and cellphones. Healthcare practitioners can use population data from big data to conduct new research and develop individualized care. This data can be gathered with the use of a remote monitoring system, which is also essential for big data analytics in advanced healthcare.

Internet of medical things (IoMT). The foundation of remote patient monitoring is IoMT. Patients and healthcare professionals can collaborate using IoMT for remote patient monitoring to follow chronic disease management more quickly and effectively. This improves the quality-of-care services for people who are elderly, require continual supervision, or require urgent medical attention. IoMT-powered healthcare devices, such as wearable medical equipment that enables patient data to be continuously monitored and transferred over cloud-based systems, are rising in popularity.

Advancements in wearable medical technologies. Wearable technology has become a crucial part of the healthcare system during the Covid-19 epidemic. Doctors can improve treatment strategies and comprehend patients’ bodily activity, thanks to the data and insights provided by wearable technology. This makes it easier to compare the effects of the care received in the clinic with the circumstances for remote monitoring. Wearable technology is being used in clinical trials by pharmaceutical corporations to speed up the drug discovery process.

Remote health monitoring systems. To manage the data of patients who have been admitted, including prescriptions, diagnostics, analytical test results, and medical reports, many hospitals use an electronic patient data management system. Modern personal data management system, which assists in real-time data collection from devices like heart monitors, pulse oximetry, blood pressure, and other devices, is also a feature of technically advanced hospitals. This enables medical professionals to completely optimize patient care, ultimately resulting in significant time savings and a decrease in unneeded readmissions.

Similar to other advancements, a number of industry experts and opinion makers are doubtful regarding the widespread adoption of 5G technology in the healthcare sector as they envisage the following limiting factors:

Data security and privacy. More and more gadgets in hospitals, clinics, and other similar healthcare institutions will soon be highly reliant on the network as 5G begins to proliferate more and more throughout the healthcare segment. The widespread use of patient care management system (PCMS) and electronic medical records (EMR) would also be made hassle-free by 5G. Despite being innovative, these developments raise significant questions regarding the security and privacy of patient information and data. Policymakers must therefore, strengthen firewalls and ensure data privacy by bringing stringent laws in line with the standards of 5G. Additionally, the network service providers must also adhere to the high privacy requirements of the healthcare sector and guarantee complete data protection across mobile, IoT, and networks.

Technical compatibility. The present 4G/LTE smartphones and devices are not compatible with the latest generation of 5G networks Therefore, original equipment manufacturers have already started bringing out 5G-equipped smartphones and related gadgets However, because 5G introduces new microwave frequencies, it necessitates incredibly extensive device-based testing in order to comprehend or foresee the performance of the device and its interactions with the network. Issues with device performance and heating are also brought on by the 5G network’s high frequency. Consequently, the broad availability and the subsequent deployment of 5G devices still rests on the makers’ ability to address various issues described previously.

Coverage and rollout. The present 4G network uses certain radio frequency spectrum frequencies, usually below 6 GHz. But the 5G network uses smaller millimeter waves, which range from 30 to 300 GHz. Given the fact it opens a significant bandwidth for several devices, the millimeter waves cannot travel seamlessly through buildings and mega structures. Also, other obstacles like rain, trees, etc., absorb these waves, thus hindering transmission. This has led to the rise of a new technology, the small-cell network for the broadcast of millimeter waves. Nevertheless, such networks’ availability is now only limited to a few countries within their metro/metropolitan zones, and the telecom carriers need to create an enormous infrastructure to solve this difficulty.

Infrastructure. To transmit 4G/LTE signals over long distances, the current wireless networks rely on big, powerful cell towers. However, thousands of low-power tiny base stations would be used in small-cell networks to disseminate the 5G signals. Base stations like these are located closer to one another and facilitate signal transmission over obstacles. The telecom companies and the government will have to create a widespread network of 5G tiny cells or comparable devices to enable smooth and uninterrupted 5G connections. On the other hand, in order to comply with the 5G network requirements, hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare organizations would also need to update and modernize their infrastructure, applications, technology, and equipment.

Marketwise, the global share of 5G in healthcare stood at USD 215 million for the year 2021and is expected to reach to USD 3,667 million by 2026, growing at an impressive CAGR of 76.3 percent (2021-2026). While North America is the prominent region for 5G infrastructure, the United States leads in 5G research and development, deployment of 5G technology and the presence of key market players. This can be attributed to advanced technology, pro-corporate regulations and massive financial investment by the Federal Government in the healthcare sector.

Talking of other regions of the world, in the first year of commercial availability in the Latin America and the Caribbean 5G connections grew at a rate of 18.4 percent annually with the addition of 71million new subscription year over year. A substantial portion of this growth is poised to enter the healthcare segment.

Many European nations are offering 5G services to their consumers including the healthcare players, clinical trial giants, super specialty hospitals and pharmaceutical majors. Although the reach of 5G spreads throughout Europe, it still lags behind US and China.

Rapid growth in 5G coverage and integration of 5G technology with healthcare is also being observed in China. It was in the year 2019 when first remote surgery was conducted in China which was facilitated by a collaboration of tech companies Huawei, China Mobile, and Chinese PLA General Hospital. The surgeon, Ling Zhipei, performed the surgery from South China’s Hainan Province on patient with Parkinson’s disease at Chinese PLA General Hospital in Beijing. Today, as China lays out blue prints of surpassing the US, it plans to install over 2 million 5G base stations this year along with 1.45 million existing 5G base stations. Promised to emerge as a gamechanger in the Asia-Pacific region the effects of this massive plan, even though in the initial phases, is already being witnessed in the Chinese defense, telecommunication and aerospace industry. Also, a giant leap in the Chinese healthcare sector with the China-Japan Friendship Hospital becoming the first to deploy 5G indoor network, strengthening the foundation for exploration in 5G for telemedical services, back in May 2020. This hospital today, assists more than 5,000 hospitals across China.

The Indian healthcare sector is continuously making progress to remain at par with the latest technological advancements. Hospitals in India, today, in order to offer best services to the patients are making use of internet to assist in all its operations. The massive use of wi-fi services and Internet of Things has transformed the Indian healthcare space with the application of connected healthcare through better equipment, better monitoring and tracking capabilities.

Bharti Airtel has collaborated with Apollo Hospitals and Cisco to develop 5G connected ambulance that upscales healthcare access and act as a lifesaver in critical situations. The demo was conducted in Bengaluru over the 5G spectrum which was allocated by the Department of Telecom to Airtel. This can be one small step in the Indian healthcare system however, it can transform patient’s life by drastically improving post hospitalization mortality.

Vodafone Idea too has entered into agreements with Ericsson to drive 5G enabled healthcare services in rural parts of the country. As a part of the trials, Vodafone Idea enabled 5G network was brought into use by a doctor based at an urban location to perform radiology scan on a patient located in a village.

The integration of 5G with the Indian health sector will be characterized with faster connection speed which in turn shall transform doctor-patient interactions by incorporating electronic communications into healthcare. When 5G becomes more widely available, telemedicine and virtual connection will connect remote villages to doctors practicing in urban areas. Additionally, by providing more people with access to remote professional medical training and remote diagnosis facilities, proactive and quicker treatment will become more accessible.

How industries are capitalizing on the opportunity. The connected medical devices segment accounts for a large market share of 5G. These segments included ambulances, asset tracking for medical devices, AR/VR, connected medical devices such as smart watches. The segment is projected to reach USD 1,871.7 million by 2026 from USD 91 million in 2021. Further to this, it is estimated that there will be 3.7 million robotic procedures in 2022, which is likely to be followed by a rush to adopt this technology by the rest of the hospital entities and public-based healthcare. Seeing the immense potential of 5G technology in healthcare, industries have come forward to tap the benefits in a manner that all stake holders are in a win-win situation. Some of the most prominent examples are:

  • KT Corporation and Samsung Medical Centre in South Korea have envisioned smart hospitals with 5G-connected cameras to allow high-quality video and audio stream to help resident doctors improve their education.
  • Apacer’s latest PCIe Gen4×4 SSD is stepping up to the task of providing storages that can keep up with high-speed network and provide high-speed, low-latency, and stable operation during data transmission to be effectively used in AI image recognition for diagnosis.
  • MagicLeap, a leading tech company in the field of headsets for VR/AR, has recently decided to grant health­care startups with early access to its second-gen AR headsets. One of the companies, SentiAR, allow doctors to see a 3D model of patient’s heart while they operate.

The healthcare sector needs tools that can serve people from all socioeconomic strata, as we saw during the most recent pandemic. For better clinical outcomes, 5G enables mass adoption of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, big data, extended reality (augmented/virtual/mixed reality), and the IoT. 5G promises network dependability, speed, and scale for telemedicine. The development, testing, and deployment of applications that make use of the crucial 5G attributes of ultra-fast bandwidth, ultra-reliability, ultra-low latency, and enormous machine connectivity are required from the healthcare industry. Healthcare organizations must invest in applications that take patients’ and users’ needs into account, despite issues with infrastructure, privacy and security, device compatibility, and limited coverage.

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