5G Holds Potential to Boost Telehealth, Other Innovations

Sept. 18, 2020
However, more collaborations will be needed

Telehealth has emerged as a viable option for delivering patient care during the pandemic, and by all accounts it is here to stay as a safe, efficient and effective way to connect patients and physicians. Telehealth took a great leap forward in 2020, but what about the platforms it relies on? Without fast, reliable wireless networks, we cannot fully enjoy the benefits of telehealth, remote monitoring and the increasingly sophisticated technologies that allow for virtual care.

5G, the fifth generation in wireless networks, has gotten much attention in the consumer market. Uses like the ability to download high-quality video files to a smartphone in seconds have captured consumers’ imagination. Less flashy but more impactful is 5G’s potential to transform healthcare. Behind the scenes, 5G already has been an ally in the battle against COVID-19, helping to boost connectivity for telehealth programs where service is available. Physicians with 5G-enabled devices who work remotely can quickly access and download patient records and images. Support staff can work safely from home during a surge. Hospitals and health systems can use networks to support remote testing sites. This is just a hint at healthcare advancements possible under 5G, though. 

Unlike previous generations, 5G looks like a viable addition for healthcare organizations that today rely on wi-fi networks to transmit mobile data. As anyone using a wireless internet connection knows, high demand on a wi-fi network can slow access and functionality. That might be annoying for a consumer, but it can be catastrophic in hospitals and health systems, where minutes and sometimes even seconds can make the difference between life and death. To ensure consistency and reliability, healthcare organizations build in extra capacity, a costly solution in an environment that is getting increasingly digital and interconnected.

The 5G spectrum allows for transmission of large packets of data – high throughput – with less lag time in the signal transmission – low latency – yielding high reliability. 5G enables network slicing, the partitioning of a single physical network into multiple virtual networks, which can be dedicated to telemedicine, virtual surgery and other critical clinical uses. A healthcare organization with a private 5G network would be better able to manage the peaks and valleys of demand and no longer be constrained by capacity limitations. This could open the doors to innovative approaches that connect multiple data sources to provide better care to patients, thereby managing the increased proliferation of IoMT devices (Internet of Medical Things). 5G’s speed and low latency have the potential to revolutionize telehealth by making remote care a seamless experience for clinicians and patients.

5G in the consumer sector is roaring ahead, fueled by developments like Apple’s recent announcement that it plans to release at least 75 million 5G iPhones by the end of 2020. In healthcare, 5G is still on the cutting edge in the U.S. Today, some 5G carriers are collaborating with early adopters in healthcare to identify use cases in hospitals, across medical campuses and remotely to demonstrate where 5G will be an asset. Effectively managing networks through the utilization of multiple wireless technologies, including 5G, will enable hospitals to transform digitally and increase the adoption of innovation. How quickly patients benefit from 5G and all of the medical innovations it can support ultimately may depend on these partnerships. 

Jonathan Fritz, JD, MS, is the chief innovation officer at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME). He spent more than a decade as an attorney representing software firms, startups, VCs and research institutions prior to leading several health and wellness ventures.

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