Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Can 5G save lives? The world's medical professionals think so. Healthcare innovators are working hard to explore how the speed, availability and reliability of 5G can transform medicine. These experts are currently developing ideas such as remote patient monitoring, augmented reality assisted robotic surgery, wearable monitors, connected ambulances and medicine transportation in medical deserts.
Analysts are confident these innovations can deliver. Research firm MarketsandMarkets says the value of the 5G healthcare market could reach $3.67 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 76.3 percent during the forecast period. For patients, the outcome will be better self-care, fewer days in hospital, higher quality of care, decreased wait times and a generally healthier population.
Before we explore the immense potential of 5G to transform healthcare, let's re-cap the 'story' of 5th generation cellular and summarize its capabilities.
The most important quality to consider with 5G is that it is not just faster 4G. Instead, it’s a new type of network. True ‘standalone’ 5G is cloud-native. This is because its foundational technologies (Network Function Virtualization and Software Defined Networking) turn many traditionally physical network components into software.
The virtual nature of 5G is what makes it so fast, capacious and reliable. Here are the key metrics for 5G:
• Up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) data rate – 10 to 100x speed improvement over 4G and 4.5G networks
• 1-millisecond latency
• 1000x bandwidth per unit area
• Up to 100x number of connected devices per unit area (compared with 4G LTE)
• 99.999 percent availability
• Up to 10-year battery life for low power IoT devices
The latter point – about the IoT – is extremely important. Most of the billions of devices that connect to 5G will not be smartphones. They will be 'things'. These will range from simple monitors and meters to sophisticated robots.
According to Ericsson, there will be more than 22 billion connected IoT devices by 2024.
Which brings us back to telemedicine and telehealth, where high reliability and security matter more than anything else. Let's briefly define the two markets:
Telemedicine is the practice of using technology to deliver clinical services at a distance. It enables a physician in one location to deliver care to a patient at a remote site.
Telehealth refers to a broader set of electronic and telecommunications technologies and services used to provide care and services at a distance.
Obviously, 5G fulfils the fundamental speed and capacity requirements of the Internet of Medical Things. But there are still important design considerations for makers of connected medical devices to factor in. These include:
• Reliable connectivity
Devices that record and send critical data must be trusted to stay connected for extended periods.
• Compliant with medical devices regulation
Devices must comply with the rising number of privacy and cybersecurity regulations being introduced across the world.
Devices must be future-proofed to allow secure remote software or security updates that provide optimal performance over extended periods.
• Easy to use
It must be easy for patients and doctors to connect and run IoT medical devices with minimal intervention or set up.
In 2022, many transformative Internet of Medical Things projects have already been launched. The COVID-19 pandemic might have helped to accelerate this process. It focused attention on the question of how doctors might continue to treat patients when one-on-one, low-touch sessions are not feasible.
As a consequence, physicians and the public are now more accepting of bodily sensors and remote consultations. However, this just the start. The more dramatic breakthroughs might come with the emergence of the ‘tactile Internet’. Here, a physician might be able to perform a procedure on a patient in a different location. The surgeon’s movements at one site would be recreated instantaneously by computerised equipment at the other site. This is just one of a range of dramatic – potentially life-saving – applications of 5G in healthcare.
Let's explore some of them. Download our infographic.