The next telecommunication revolution is just around the corner: the promises of high bandwidth, low latency and low-power-low-cost of 5G will open the gate to a flood of new inventions and the implementation of ideas, which have already been for long in the public consciousness – such as stable augmented reality or truly immersive virtual reality platforms powered by networks. 5G in healthcare will finally allow the building of infrastructure suitable for the interplay of health sensors, algorithms, and smart devices, for the smooth operation of telemedicine, or even for providing a way for parents to interact with babies who are stuck in incubators.
What is 5G?
Do you have the pain of trying to stream the latest Game of Thrones episode to your phone due to network troubles? The God of technology is telling you ‘not today’ during Arya Stark’s big scene? Well, do you remember that just a couple of years ago, we weren’t able to stream videos on smartphones, and sometimes it took literally a day to download a 700 MB movie? Technology is developing superfast and with the next revolution in mobile communications around the corner, with the emergence of 5G, you will not only be able to download the entire Avengers movie in HD to your smartphone in seconds, but you’ll finally be able to emerge in augmented and virtual reality worlds that have been promised for years. But before going deeper into the rabbit hole, let’s look at 5G technology itself.
5G stands for fifth-generation cellular wireless, and as with every newer sequel to the iconic car racing feature, it promises to be faster and more furious than ever before. 5G networks will allow devices to download data at more than 1 gigabit per second (1gb/s). That is at least 10 to 100 times faster than today’s 4G services. At demonstrator sites, operators have wowed audiences with displays of bandwidth, simultaneously transmitting a 360-degree virtual reality display and 12 ultra-high-definition video streams over a single network connection, for example.
The mind-blowing speed is almost at our doorsteps: around 20 operators expect to launch 5G services during 2019, although it will probably be 2020 before the network infrastructure required to support widespread adoption is in place. In the United States, 5G is already available in home service and mobile hotspots in a few cities, with a wider rollout not expected until next year. China, Japan, and South Korea have all been developing their 5G networks superfast, they even outpaced the United States in this respect, still, experts expect the big 5G applications to only crop up around 2021-2022.
Why will 5G be revolutionary?
Although 5G will have an impact on average consumers, too, due to the increase in speed and bandwidth, the real beneficiaries of the technology will be businesses and sectors – such as healthcare. 5G networks will eclipse their predecessors in at least three areas: capacity, latency, and customization. The first one refers to both the increase in speed and bandwidth, as well as the ability to connect a lot more devices at once, which is a prerequisite for the Internet of Things (IoT) networks. At the moment, smart sensors, connected devices, and other IoT tools are putting current networks under increasing strain. While 4G supports only 4000 devices per square kilometer, 5G can support up to a million devices. Now, that’s an insanely huge difference.
The second dimension, latency, or in other words, the responsiveness of a given system, will become key for the advancement of remote controlling in many sectors. Just think about self-driving cars and remote drivers. Today, when a user presses the “submit” button on a Google search, it takes around 50 milliseconds for the request to travel across the network to Google’s servers, and for the search result to make the return journey. In a 5G network, that round-trip time will fall to around one millisecond. That will be extremely important in the development of telehealth, especially telesurgeries.
And finally, the third dimension of 5G is the appearance of customized networks. Here, Guido Weissbrich, Director of Network Planning and Optimization at mobile operator Vodafone said that while the first two were rather incremental changes, this one will prove to be truly revolutionary – for providers, at least, not necessarily for the average consumer. This means, that instead of customers connecting to the same networks, operators will carve out subnetworks with features tuned to specific requirements. For example, there could be a network for telehealth emphasizing the lowest latency rate possible, while fast download speed and wide geographical coverage for the transmission of medical images.
Why is it interesting for healthcare?
Healthcare will benefit from 5G technology from countless aspects; it is basically the field that might experience the most changes. When PC magazine went on a trip to Oulu, Finland, one of the pioneers in 5G development, the top ideas included a way to do stroke rehab through VR; smart bandages that track your healing; and a way for parents to interact with babies who are stuck in incubators. But that’s just the beginning.
Let’s look at the dimensions that 5G promises. The first is the potential for much more speed and bandwidth. Adding a high-speed 5G network to existing architectures can help quickly and reliably transport huge data files of medical imagery, which can improve both access to care and the quality of care. For example, at the Austin Cancer Center, the PET scanner generates extremely large files — up to 1 gigabyte of information per patient per study. When someone needs a remote consultation, it could be difficult to send over such a huge file quickly with the currently existing networks. In the future, that might change for the better and lead to more frequent remote consultations.
The dawn of health wearables, connected systems, and artificial intelligence
According to Anthem, 86 percent of doctors say wearables, which are a common type of remote monitoring, increase patient engagement with their own health. Additionally, wearables are predicted to decrease hospital costs by 16 percent in the next five years. Both statistics are likely to increase further in the coming years. Although expectations regarding health sensors, wearables, and other connected devices are already high to transmit often real-time data to doctors about the user’s health, networks and/or mobile technology cannot show up the performance matching these expectations at the moment. That’s why 5G technology could be a game-changer.
In order to make patients the point of care, accurate pocket-sized connected devices are needed that constantly monitor the state of the patient and notify the physician in case of values out of the normal range. 5G technology could enable such health IoT networks to operate in a stable and highly reliable way.
Parallel to the advancement of health IoT networks and devices, the possibility to create big data-powered smart algorithms in healthcare will also increase. Using 5G infrastructure, it will be much easier and more reliable to use artificial intelligence software analyzing real-time patient data sent to could platforms. The real era of A.I. will come with the advent of 5G technology.
What if you could operate on brains remotely?
One of the most important aspects of 5G technology is that it enables telemedicine, and more specifically, telesurgery due to the very low latency that it can achieve. According to a study by Market Research Future, the telemedicine market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16.5 percent from 2017 to 2023. The growth is mainly due to the rise in demand in remote and/or rural areas as well as the uptake in technology – such as 5G.
Experts say that 5G’s ability to penetrate farther than current wireless networks could finally enable telesurgery, bringing necessary operations to those who need it more. In January, stories in the Chinese press indicated that a surgeon there had removed the liver of a lab animal 30 miles away using da Vinci surgical robots and wireless 5G internet. Then, in March, Dr. Ling Zhipei, of Beijing’s PLA General Hospital, reportedly performed brain surgery on a human patient more than 1,800 miles away – the first reported wireless human telesurgery. Although Chinese advancements always have to be read with some skepticism as they cannot be verified by independent sources, the examples show how the field aims for progress.
In the future, the promise of 5G technology could also have an impact on robotics itself. Today’s surgical robots are large and heavy because they require great computational power to process graphics, vision from the robot’s cameras, and movement. In addition to enabling telesurgery, 5G technology could also enable smaller, nimbler surgical robots, which could greatly expand a remote surgeon’s capabilities.
Sometimes the key to health is translation
In many care settings, translators are used in cases when the language of the care provider team does not correspond to the language of the patient. In the future, with 5G, translators can video conference with the patient and doctor using models at the network edge with low latency.
Great examples are already out there. As early as 2016, Ericsson and King’s College London partnered in a project to translate the dexterity of human surgeons onto robots via remote control and 5G network. In this project, surgeons have to put on VR gear and haptic gloves which pick on their movements and pressure on one end of the Earth. The information will then be transferred non-intermittently supported by the 5G network, to a robotic surgeon operating on a real patient situated on the other end of the Earth. The project not only enhances remote surgery but also opens a door to transfer skills across different networks, creating the “Internet of Skills”. A step forward from “Internet of Medicine” (IoM) or the evolution of care through enhanced technology.
As we can see from the above, 5G technology does not encompass a health technology development but it will have a tremendous impact on the medical sector. Health sensors, wearables, connected devices as well as smart algorithms relying on big data sets cannot be dependent on the fragile nature of 4G networks or home bandwidth. Especially when it comes to electronic devices connected to patient data, users want to see stability, reliability, and constant performance. 5G could provide exactly that and we hope to see the technology progress as soon as possible.