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Digital healthcare: How 5G could prove truly life-changing

5G is set to enable new technologies that will change the way we live, interact, work and play. The technologies being tested and devised today, as well as the applications still to be dreamed of, will transform the digital world.

A key vertical market set to be revolutionized by 5G is healthcare, where connected medicine could prove truly life-changing.

What qualities will set 5G apart?

When we think about the advancement from 2G to 3G, and more recently to 4G, the first “benefit” that comes to mind is speed. 5G, however, won’t simply be about faster speeds. 5G is also set to support IoT devices that will have varying demands in terms of reliability, low latency and real-time communications.

Recent research published by Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies and founding director of the Centre for Technology Innovation at Brookings, highlights four factors which will distinguish 5G from its predecessors: connected devices, fast and intelligent networks, back-end services, and extremely low latency. These qualities will enable a fully connected and interactive world with a variety of applications, including new possibilities in terms of health care, such as imaging, diagnostics, data analytics and treatments.

Darrell describes a 5G world where “real-time health services will become the norm rather than the exception”, bringing patients “closer to a science fiction concept of digital integration than ever before”.

The impact of 5G: the stuff of science fiction fantasy

Consumer engagement
With the advent of wearables, technologies that enable consumers to engage with their own health have been growing in popularity. 5G is set to continue this trend, and will enable sophisticated diagnostics in monitoring equipment and wearable devices which will allow patients to track their own medical care, with early warning systems in place to detect potential problems before the patient ends up in the emergency room.

5G Asia speaker Dr. Adam Chee is a convergence scientist working on various aspects of the healthcare ecosystem, with expertise in eHealth implementation and adoption across the APAC region. Adam points out that advances in health devices will allow consumers to become “more interested in participating in their own health, and highlight a problem before it reaches emergency status”.

However, Adam also points out that it is important for consumers to understand the technology they are utilizing, that some wearables are not 'medical grade', and to ensure they are utilizing the tech accurately to prevent finding problems where none exist.

5G-Robotic-FingerRemote surgery
Already today there are some fascinating, science-fiction-worthy use cases being trailed. One such example is the “Remote Control and Intervention” 5G medical use case showcased by Ericsson and King’s College London at 5G World 2016.

The demonstration showed a probe as a robotic representation of a biological finger that gives the surgeon the sense of touch in minimally invasive surgery, and is able to send accurate real-time localization of hard nodules in soft tissue. The probe is able to identify cancer tissue and send information back to the surgeon as haptic feedback.

Remote access
In his report, Darrell highlights the potentially transformative impact of 5G as it helps to reduce healthcare disparities based on class, income, and geographical boundaries. For example, the use of sensors and remote monitoring devices might help patients living in remote locations to gain access to the same level of medical assistance as a patient in a major city. Improvements in imaging might also allow healthcare professionals in one location to easily seek a second opinion through high-speed transmission of X-rays and CT scans.

Quality and efficiency
Adam highlights the “connectivity factor” as key to implementing Mobile Health. "With the global shortage of trained healthcare professionals, 5G can potentially change the paradigm in not just where we utilise mobile technology for the provision of health services, but also re-examine existing, proven methodologies or implementations to improve the "user experience" for both care providers and receivers, whilst raising the bar for quality and efficiency”, says Adam.

Ensuring 5G technology has maximum impact

For 5G technology to deliver its promise, Adam points out that a number of hurdles need to be considered. The “availability of 5G infrastructure in the geography of interest, as well as the adoption of 5G in the relevant equipment” is an obvious barrier, says Adam. The issue of equipment is slightly different in consumer as opposed to medical grade care, says Adam: “Consumer-related care devices (wearables, mobile phones) have a shorter replacement cycle, but for medical grade equipment used for diagnostic purposes, the replacement cycle tends to be much, much longer.”

Darrell West’s report delves deeper into the challenges. This includes infrastructure development; spectrum harmonization; adequate technical standards; effective regulation; and changes in reimbursement policy, privacy protection, and research data.

Investment in digital health for the first half of 2016 reached $3.9 billion, breaking funding records. But as with any start-up venture, Adam suggests that most investments will “end up as a loss”.

So what is Adam’s advice to potential investors? He is keen to get across that “technology is merely an enabler, and what is important is knowing how to use it contextually.” As such, consultation and collaboration with experts, particularly in the healthcare field, will be fundamental to success.

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