The new promise of 5G for healthcare

November 20, 2019A 3.5 minute read

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Who knew that the same mobile technology that will let you run a Matrix franchise refresher course before the fourth installment drops could also turn healthcare on its head? The promising new applications of 5G for healthcare mean changes for the better and, in the case of security, for the worse. Before diving into those advantages and disadvantages, it’s important to understand what exactly 5G is.

5G wireless infrastructure

The race to 5G on major networks is on, and speculation is abundant. 5G, the next generation of mobile connectivity, is a young technology that’s essentially in its beta-test phase, so it’s worth keeping a grounded perspective regarding its prospects. While we’re hearing about a wide range of potential, some of the more concrete benefits include:

  • Increased speed and bandwidth, with data rates of up to 10 Gbps—a 100x boost over 4G LTE tech.

  • Higher density, accommodating up to 100 times more connected devices in the same physical area as 4G LTE with 99.999% availability

  • Lower power consumption for smartphones and at the infrastructure level—IoT devices included

The future of 5G is fast, but for healthcare, the change runs a lot deeper than laser-fast connections and more users.

A new world of remote and telemedicine

With all the benefits that telemedicine has to offer, it still faces a mix of challenges ranging from reimbursement to legal requirements. While 5G won’t do much to solve those problems on its own, its low latency translates to benefits that could change the way we look at medicine.

4G LTE connectivity might seem quick when you’re loading up articles to read or streaming music, but even a small amount of lag can be glaring when you’re manipulating remote objects designed to act as extensions of your body. 5G networks could essentially eliminate lag, opening the door to advancements in remote surgery, which requires imperceptible delays in data transmission. For example, Ericsson has been working with NueroDigital Technologies and doctors at King’s College London to demonstrate a remote surgery technique that uses a VR handset and special glove equipped with haptic feedback motors to perform a procedure from a different location. This is being touted as a step toward the “internet of skills” and the beginning of the ability to translate physical interactions over long distances faithfully.

Is this just hype? Perhaps in the short term, but the reliability of 5G wireless infrastructure will definitely be an important factor in measuring the success of 5G.

The evolution of IoMT and connected devices

From blood glucose monitors to pacemakers, the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) is making strides in the industry, and the rollout of 5G for healthcare might just be the push needed to cement the role of emerging medical technologies for years to come.

With its ridiculously fast data speeds and improved capacity for multiple connected devices, 5G translates to an “IoT-friendly ecosystem.” This could open the door to underserved populations who lack access to healthcare facilities locally and could benefit from IoT advancements like the aforementioned remote surgery.

An added benefit to provider budgets and green IT initiatives is that you can expect remote devices to last significantly longer when they’re running on battery power alone. Estimates show a potential 10-year remote battery life for IoT-based sensor devices deployed in remote locations—a trait that could be especially beneficial in natural disaster situations.

A look at potential challenges

With all the potential benefits, it’s important to note that 5G may bring a some issues.

Radio frequency

It’s being reported that 5G networks will transmit in the 6 GHz range. This frequency is already crowded by other signals, one of which is satellite links. Time will tell which transmissions it might interfere with and whether it’s a problem at all.

Security

5G is praised for some of its security benefits, but the risks are real too.

Faster speeds mean hackers will be able to transfer data in less time, exfiltrating huge amounts of sensitive PHI before they can be noticed. And if delicate procedures like remote surgery become more common, telemedicine IT security risks could increase exponentially.

Overall, though, 5G is simply young and untested tech, and it will likely be relied upon for highly sensitive applications. With evolving security challenges and more high-stakes remote communication, now is a great time to rethink security strategies with a focus on vulnerable endpoints.

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