If you’ve upgraded your cellphone recently, chances are you were excited to be part of the 5G experience. And you weren’t alone. Recent statistics show that in December 2020, there were almost 230 million 5G subscribers around the world with no signs of slowing down.
And while the 5G exuberance has yet to overshadow the fact that we still can’t get cell phone coverage when standing in certain parts of the grocery store, one has to wonder what 5G has to do with healthcare?
The answer: Quite a lot.
“Except for a few locations in a few cities around the country, the download speeds on most 5G phones will not be noticeably different from what you experience with your 4G LTE phone today,” explains usatoday.com contributor Bob O’Donnell. “The real reason to buy a 5G phone today (or in the near future) is to prepare you for what is still to come.”
What lies in store for consumers is a digital transformation in present-day patient care? Just imagine: smart hospitals filling in gaps in health services access, specialists delivering telehealth services to patients across the country, wearable devices tracking vital signs, and physicians collaborating over a sensitive medical case without leaving their office.
The biggest challenge for modern healthcare systems is moving vast amounts of data between locations. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, around 30 percent of the world’s stored data is generated in the healthcare industry, noting that a single patient typically generates about 80 MB each year in EMR data.
On a 5G network, users can load a webpage or download a file somewhere between 10 and 100 times faster than today.
There are three areas where 5G capabilities and robust connectivity can help prepare healthcare for more personal and effective care experiences. Telehealth connections create meaningful one-on-one contacts, sensor innovations open up opportunities for life-changing data collection, and strategic collaborations elevate quality patient care. Let’s discuss each point.
Expand telehealth services
Healthcare networks routinely face difficulties with extending care to rural areas. Even customers in urban locations often face transportation challenges when their appointments require travel. If a silver lining exists in healthcare services’ current pivot, it’s the recent rise in remote care delivery systems. Studies found that telehealth services show a steady growth at a compound annual rate of almost 17 percent from 2017 to 2023.
In fact, Salesforce reported a 154 percent increase in telehealth visits in March 2020 alone.
“The speed and bandwidth of 5G will also usher in an era of improved patient monitoring services,” explains John Carney of Salesforce. “For example, for health conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma or diabetes, a patient who does not live near a hospital could benefit from remote 24/7, ubiquitous monitoring.”
Better connectivity also makes it possible for data exchanges between doctors. Now a doctor can confer with a specialist across the country by sharing large image files, such as MRI images, x-rays, or large data patient files to ensure their patient will receive the best care possible.
Seamless sensor information collection
Chances are either you or somebody you know owns a smartwatch or a fitness tracker. Pew Research says one in five of us own one of these devices. And as the performance gap between medical- and non-medical grade wearable devices closes and wireless connectivity rates improve, many healthcare providers are using these fitness devices to collect patient data during regular activity.
By 2024, Gartner predicts miniaturizing capabilities will advance to the point that 10 percent of all wearable technologies will become unobtrusive to the user. As these devices grow more favorable among users, it opens up opportunities for improvements in personal patient care and better overall treatment options.
This information serves two purposes for a healthcare system:
Creates a comprehensive patient wellness record.
Healthcare providers can gather more information about patients without relying on physical visits to the office. This is a strategic move as healthcare shifts its focus to wellness and preventative care. Should there be concerns about patient data changes, the provider can schedule an appointment for a thorough exam that targets those concerns.
Supplies data for large-scale clinical trials.
Research shows that 38 percent of executives expect more than a quarter of their clinical trials to be virtual by 2025, thus eliminating the common roadblocks associated with clinical trials, such as costs, geography limitations, and data integrity being among those reasons.
“Wearables offer remote data capture over longer time periods, providing more detailed, granular data,’ say researchers at clinicaltraislarena.com. “This aligns with decentralized trials and can improve patient safety while reducing the burden of traveling to sites.”
They added that “the ease of use makes wearables patient-centric, which improves recruitment and patient retention.”
Better efficiency for providers
Among the numerous lessons learned during the pandemic, perhaps one of the most telling was the lack of forecasting in their delivery systems. As they relied on manual inventory logs to monitor supply availability, healthcare providers came up short in a big, big way.
With the significant movement toward digital transformation, paired with growing 5G coverage, healthcare providers not only track equipment and supplies with unprecedented efficiency, but they can monitor the activity of nurses, physicians—even patients—as they move around the hospital.
Converting to a compatible 5G system isn’t without its hiccups and expense. However, experts note those healthcare networks that are quick to embrace new 5G technology— as it opens doors for decentralized patient-centered healthcare opportunities and more efficient back-office operations—will have a tremendous advantage over their competitors and a clear pathway to a healthy, scalable future.