Will 5G Really Solve Your Problems in Healthcare?

Fifth Generation (5G) cellular is the most emotionally charged technology of my career and, for whatever reason, has struck a nerve across the globe. Do you remember the news showing activists picketing the streets and vigilantes sabotaging 5G cellular towers? I distinctly remember headlines suggesting anywhere from 5G spreading Coronavirus to children made sick by 5G radiation to it’s going to disrupt your pacemaker. I certainly am not a physician and take no position on the potential for RF frequencies to harm your health. I also do not choose to wear a tinfoil hat while asking someone to hold my beer. Well, maybe the beer part, but in all seriousness, it’s quite a phenomenon that has transpired with this evolving cellular technology.

Speaking of phenomenon, could 5G, currently, be the most overhyped technology to date? We in the tech industry tend to benchmark and market technologies to the absolute best case and sometimes unobtainable real-world statistics. I can imagine the advertisements for 7G, which will indeed claim it will provide 1.6 Jigowats of power to change every aspect of your life. The fact is 5G is complex, especially since its three different spectrums under one 5G tech banner: the mid & low band and mmWave. The claims of 1 millisecond latency and up to 30 gigabits per second of throughput may be possible in control conditions. For example, sitting in front of a mmWave radio positioned every few meters with little physical obstructions to make that reality. Not to say this is not possible, but have you personally experienced any noticeable increase in breakneck bandwidth on your mobile device? Did the shift from 4G to 5G at the top of your cell give you a warp-speed experience? At the same time, when we talk about hype, have there ever been more commercials for any new technology? The reality is that cellular providers in the US spent over an estimated $100 billion on the new 5G technology licensing and rollout. With that level of investment, it would only make sense to heavily advertise the new "lightspeed" network to encourage widespread adoption. I am certainly not knocking the carriers, as without this type of huge investment, we would still be waiting to connect with our 9600 baud modems making that terrible screeching noise only to take all day to download a single image.

Ok, so I am always full of satire, but what does this have to do with healthcare? Throughout my journey in the healthcare industry, I have been fortunate enough to witness a tremendous technological revolution. While government funding and incentives have certainly played a role, it's hard for me not to reflect on my own experiences and think about the stark contrast between the healthcare my grandparents received and the care that is available today. In the past, all medical appointments were in-person and scheduled over the phone or in the office. Prescriptions were written on sticky note-sized paper resembling hieroglyphics that the local pharmacy somehow translated. Fast forward: I just had a telemedicine doctor visit where in a matter of minutes, we could speak to our family physician without leaving the comfort of our own bedroom and had medicine delivered the same day. Quite a change in the patient experience! With this healthcare evolution, it’s no doubt that cellular technologies will help continue to evolve the advancement of medicine. Improvements in bandwidth with lower latency may not meet the hyped marketing statistics today, but I have no doubt the progress will continue. So, how will 5G help solve the healthcare challenges of today? The answer is we are not exactly where we want to be today, but it sure is promising. Here are my top three healthcare advancements that I believe could become a reality with the implementation of 5G or future generations of wireless technology:

  1.  Robotic surgery: piquing my interest as a leading 5G use case. Yes, robotic surgery has been leveraged for a long time, since 1985. The concept is to leverage a minimally invasive surgical approach by using robotic systems to streamline the surgical process, increasing safety while reducing complications. If you look at the hospital system and healthcare vendors investing in robotic surgery, there is no doubt this fascinating tech will continue to evolve.  Johnson & Johnson acquired Auris Health, which developed endoscopic hardware aimed at lung cancer, for $3.4B. Medtronic acquired Mazor Robotics, a manufacturer of a robotic guidance system for spine surgery, for $1.64 B. So, where does 5G come into play? Imagine a horrible car accident where a surgeon with the power of a robot-assisted machine could administer lifesaving intervention at the scene of the accident from anywhere in the world.
  1. Visual impaired augmented realty (AR), virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) guidance: Yes, I dared to put all those buzzworthy acronyms AR/VR/AI together but hear me out. There are companies today that offer services for people that have difficulties because of their inability to see well enough to be independent. Think crossing the street blindfolded with a live person on your headphones safely guiding you. Analogous to a seeing-eye dog, but one that could talk to you. Currently, individuals with visual impairments can utilize the camera on their cell phones to receive assistance in understanding their surroundings and completing daily tasks. Think crossing the street blindfolded with a live person on your headphones safely guiding you. Imagine combining low latency and high-bandwidth connectivity capabilities with an augmented reality (AR) headset, allowing a person with visual impairments to navigate their surroundings hands-free. Combining AR tech with person-to-person communication could assist the visually impaired with crossing the road and other complex tasks as if someone was physically guiding them. In the future, if AI technology is incorporated, it could provide guidance and eliminate the need for the 1-on-1 person-to-person service, similar to how self-driving car technology works for people without visual impairments. It may sound like science fiction, but I truly believe and hope that this technology will be available within the next decade, and it would not be possible without advancements like 5G.
  1. Aging in place: During the pandemic, I personally witnessed the horrors of isolation at senior living homes where Grandma was quarantined to a small room for many months due to the risk of spreading the infection. After visiting through a pane of glass for over a year, I couldn’t help but think about why she needed to be there and how technology could have extended her stay at her comfortable home.  A lot of the technology to facilitate such things already exists, however, coupling 5G gateways with a panacea of IoT-connected devices could enable our aging population to prolong those tough decisions we all may face. So, by harnessing the power of 5G, Grandma ops in for several IoT-connected devices. These devices could help complete everyday tasks and notify family members of abnormal behavior. Did Grandma get out of bed, eat, and take her medication today? Being able to track those simple activities could extend her homestay significantly. Other IoT sensors could provide her medical care team with real-time vital signs and notify loved ones when something, like her heart rate, becomes abnormally high. With this data, her care team could schedule a virtual video visit to get to the bottom of the issue and modify a treatment plan or medication as needed. With more advanced connected medical devices, Grandma could avoid in-person appointments by sending an EKG or other more complex data to her care team. These technologies would help provide peace of mind for her, the family, and the clinical team. I’ll save the discussion about Grandma’s robot assistance and Skynet for a later article.
We may not have fully realized or harnessed the power of 5G technologies yet, but there is no doubt that the advancement of these technologies has the potential to solve problems in healthcare. I am very excited about what the future may hold and the countless use cases that could help shape how we receive care. That’s all for now, but I look forward to sharing other insights on healthcare topics soon. Thanks for reading!