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As U.S. Sits on the Edge of 5G, Healthcare Ponders the Possibilities


5G technology could enable major transformations in how the healthcare system treats patients.


Image has been altered. Courtesy of Karlis Dambrans.

Shafiq Rab, M.D., was a man on a mission. As chief information officer at Rush University Medical Center, he’d caught wind of the excitement about 5G in other parts of the world, and he wanted desperately to bring the latest technology to his own health system. But he couldn’t do it alone.

“I’ve been talking about this for the last five years,” he told Inside Digital Health™. He started by asking anyone he could find about which companies were going 5G in the United States. “And of course, none of the telecom companies were talking about it because there’s this whole infrastructure that has to be built around it.”

Eventually, Rab went to St. Louis, Missouri to meet with Sprint. He chased down representatives from other wireless companies at industry conferences. His message was clear: the American healthcare system needed 5G, and he had no intention of quieting down until he got it. If Rab could get 5G to Chicago, it would help not only his hospital and health system but the entire city. His quest all but morphed from a smart business move into a patriotic duty.

Finally, Rab ran into Maria Lensing, vice president of global healthcare solutions at AT&T, the company that has taken the lead on 5G in the U.S. The meeting led Rab and AT&T down a series of discussions that culminated in January with the announcement that Rush System for Health, the parent of Rush University Medical Center, would partner with the wireless company to pilot 5G in a healthcare setting.

Rab finally had his chance.

Why 5G Matters for Healthcare

The excitement around 5G isn’t just about wireless network technology. It’s a recognition that the healthcare technology available today is too advanced for a 4G world. With 5G will come the ability to transfer massive files in an instant, to regularly rely on wireless speeds that match or exceed wireline speeds and the fruition of the wearables revolution.

“5G is not just another G,” Lensing, of AT&T, told Inside Digital Health. “Aside from the eventual higher speeds and lower latency it provides, the beauty of the 5G revolution is that it’s arriving at the same time as other game-changing technologies that are coming into their own.”

That much is clear. There’s the cloud, edge computing, blockchain, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, to name a few. And Lensing said all of these technologies can be maximized using a 5G network.

“When you combine these elements, you have an environment that is prime for a digital revolution, where you can truly change the patient experience, virtually extend the care to patients wherever they may be and in whichever way they want and need to receive it,” she said.

Advent of 5G

If Rab encountered disinterest when he first started pushing 5G, American wireless companies are disinterested no more. The country’s major carriers have been in a race to 5G, issuing press releases and launching advertising campaigns each step of the way.

In December, for instance, AT&T introduced the first standards-based mobile 5G network in the US capable of being used through a commercially available device. The "commercially available device" to which AT&T refers is not a smartphone, but a Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot. It's a small milestone, but as companies compete to be first in 5G, they are quick to publicize even incremental advances. AT&T plans a more substantial rollout of 5G millimeter wave systems in nine more cities this year, and it will also start marketing two 5G capable phones this year. They’re slated to roll out nationwide 5G next year.

Meanwhile, Verizon plans to launch 5G in two cities next month, and Sprint says it will unveil 5G service to nine cities in May.

All in all, the makings are here for a coming 5G revolution.

What Will 5G Actually Mean for Medicine?

The first thing to know about 5G is that, while it’s a wireless technology, industry experts say it will help achieve seamless security and performance with traditional wireline internet.

So, when 5G is fully implemented, hospital networks will be much more versatile.

“Network architects will have more dexterity and will look to utilize 5G to carry the burden of increasing traffic within their campuses,” Lensing said. “And more importantly, to expand their reach beyond the four walls of the hospital.”

At Rush, the 5G network can be put behind the hospital’s firewall, creating an important layer of security not traditionally associated with wireless communication. “So your LAN and your Wi-Fi and your cellular become one,” Rab said.

The practical implications of all this are many. For one, transferring large files like radiology images will be nearly instantaneous. An MRI at one facility could be sent to another in seconds, even if the recipient is out in the field.

However, it’s not just about speed. The 5G system will also dramatically reduce latency using a technology called multi-edge computing (MEC).

“When MEC devices are installed on a provider's campus, ultra-low latency is achieved,” Lensing said. “This unlocks, we believe, for the first time in the healthcare industry, near real-time applications that require ultra-low latency, like robotic surgery, near real-time language translation, and near real-time image recognition, among others.”

Additionally, the 5G network will be able to handle mass connectivity of devices.

“5G will help enable the handling and management of the upcoming IoT explosion as the future wireless network will be able to support 1 million devices per square kilometer,” she added.

Rab believes this will lead to a transformation of the way physicians care for patients. He notes there have traditionally been very few ways to continuously monitor a patient to understand the patient’s symptoms outside of the clinic. In a 5G world, though, medical monitoring devices — wearables, but also sensors throughout a person’s home — could become ubiquitous.

In addition to the partnership with Rush, AT&T has also announced a collaboration with Vitas Healthcare, the country’s second largest provider of hospice care. The partners plan to conduct a study to see whether virtual reality and augmented reality might be used as tools to reduce chronic pain and anxiety. The system will be dependent on 5G technology.

“This mobile solution is a good use case for testing the potential for 5G speeds and low latency to help patients and families looking for alternatives to symptom management,” Lensing said.

5G Implementation Is a Challenge

Of course, as 5G rolls out bit by bit, healthcare organizations will need to buy into the idea — quite literally — before they can truly take advantage of the benefits. For one thing, they’ll need to purchase 5G-capable devices. At Rush, Rab said the health system plans to purchase 4,000 new mobile phones to allow workers to use the 5G network.

But what about other health systems? Rab, who is nothing if not an early adopter, said he’s encountered plenty of skepticism among his peers over the years.

“When I talk to people, first they didn’t know what 5G was,” he said. “Then… [they said], ‘It’s going to come in two years. I’ll worry about it when it comes.’”

Now that it’s finally happening, he’s hearing a different message from his colleagues and fellow chief information officers: “Hey, can we get a piece of it?”

“Now it’s becoming real,” he said.

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