The new 5G network technology: impact on healthcare
by Antonia Alalitei
Do you remember the first time you heard about mobile data? Or when you first got to use a search engine on your phone? Back in the days, when the acceleration of technological advancements was making a timid appearance and the majority was genuinely excited about their phone touch screen, it was hard to imagine we would reach a world of fast and reliable wireless communication, with a mundane and almost permanent interconnectivity.
Naturally, nowadays it is still difficult to predict what more there is to improve and to interconnect. How much faster than instant messaging can we get? How many more devices will be able to effortlessly communicate and across how many fields will technology be able to extend and wire a maze of interconnections to boost the daily life user experience? Brace yourselves, because the 5G mobile network technology promises to take on a much larger role than previous generations.
What is 5G?
If previous network generations brought a new focus on the interconnectivity of people, the 5th generation of mobile networks aims to move on to the interconnection of devices and machines, as well as an interconnectivity of industries. All these upgrades will happen with improved efficiency and cost, as well as a considerable boost of data transfer speeds, 3-4 times bigger than the 4G predecessor. It is predicted to reach a transformative impact as great as electricity or automotive breakthroughs, while generating a substantial 22 million jobs by 2035.
With the power to lower the cost-per-bit, the 5G technology could allow network providers to maintain the unlimited data packages offers, even with an augmented data consumption rate. Increased data consumption at the same cost could allow immersive experiences such as VR and AR to become more accessible to the general public, with increased reliability and easier exposure.
Ways healthcare could benefit from 5G technology
However advanced 4G communication might seem, it was still not enough to permit truly reliable remote diagnosis and monitoring of patients, due to substantial latency, as well as data costs and insufficient data transfer capacities.
The emerging 5G network promises a new approach to medical care. With its high-bandwidth profile, it can accommodate the transmission of substantially large files coming from hospital scanners such as MRI machines, which can be instantly transferred from the point of analysis to a specialist clinician for interpretation, thus reducing the diagnosis time, which in turn can increase the number of patients that can be treated. When distance and time are the main constraints, 5G-enhanced telemedicine also comes into play, allowing reliable connectivity between patient and doctor, as well as providing the means for professionals to collaborate and jointly diagnose efficiently. Telemedicine is, thus, predicted to grow by 16% by 2023.
5G will not only allow remote doctor-patient communication and data transfers, it will also permit the clinician to take action in real time in order to save lives. Within a simulation lab, a UK team of doctors and Telecom providers managed to perform ultrasound scanning via a 5G network. While a paramedic was attending the patient in an ambulance, a clinician was directing the procedure from afar. The paramedic was wearing a ‘haptic’ feedback glove, which the clinician could control via de network towards the areas of interest to analyze. Post-examination, high quality images were sent back to the doctor via the 5G network for interpretation. This approach could also be extended to the remote control of surgical robots, both proving vital in emergencies in order to decide the severity of the patient’s situation.
The UK has not been the only one testing the new technologies. At the Mobile World Conference 2019 in Barcelona, Vodafone has partnered up with the San Raffaele Hospital to implement remote ambulance assistance and remote surgery. Over in China, 5G technology in heathcare goes even further, where a patient in Beijing suffering from Parkinson’s disease had remote brain surgery performed by a physician in People’s Liberation Army General Hospital 3000km away.
Unsurprisingly, 5G networks could also prove useful in boosting AI techniques for patient specific diagnosis, as well as AR and VR. Since real-time rapid learning requires substantial amounts of data, it is vital to have a reliable high-bandwidth connectivity, which wasn’t achievable before. This power of connectivity also allows the better implementation of AR/VR technologies to alleviate the pain and anxiety of terminally ill patients.
Why we’re still not there yet
A massive change in network technology comes with a substantial drawback to overcome: implementation and setup. This rewiring of the network support is simply explained by electromagnetics.
The 4G networks are working on lower frequency bands, with corresponding larger wavelengths. These wavelengths allow lower frequency waves to travel longer distances without being distorted, which is why a single big tower could supply waves to connect a large area of devices. However, these waves are also slower to transfer data and present latency issues.
The reverse situation is happening with 5G networks. Since they are working on higher frequency bands, they are using smaller wavelengths. These waves travel faster, so they deliver more and deliver reliably. However, these waves are prone to distortions and attenuations when hitting obstacles, and they would ideally need to be able to directly hit their target device for best performance.
What this translates to in terms of implementation would be a multitude of small antennas, no larger than a pizza box, implanted all over the area of coverage (5G cells), which would ensure this direct propagation of waves to their targets. Therefore, until this quite costly and timely implementation covers a sufficiently large coverage area, the switch to the future of network connections cannot yet happen.
The future is bright
Even though centralized and consistent implementation of 5G networks is still in the making, the wide range of possibilities it presents are worth to get excited for. The norms are now changing faster than ever, and 5G networks are foreseeing a faster, cheaper, more accessible and reliable era of healthcare.