Five reasons to love 5G in medicine

7 minute read

The fifth generation of mobile technology will transform healthcare post-covid in Australia.

During covid lockdowns across the world we saw many new examples of mobile technology used within the health sector, including innumerable amounts of people using telehealth for the first time.

With 5G networks being switched on across the country, the connectivity of 5G is set to continue to transform the healthcare system and how we manage our own health in the wake of the pandemic.

5G, which is the fifth generation of mobile technology, offers safe, high-speed connections with low lag, and increased capacity, which will make health technology more efficient and reliable, helping to save lives and improve the wellbeing of Australians.

5G networks will support the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), critical medical innovations, and artificial intelligence (AI) through remote access, real-time monitoring, fast data transfer and high-capacity data processing. These technological advancements will in turn help support our ageing population, close the divide between rural and metropolitan healthcare services, provide remote access to world-class doctors and surgeons, and help more Australians maintain and improve their health.

Looking to the post-covid future, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) has identified five ways that 5G will drive this digital transformation in health.

1. Remote Patient Monitoring

5G’s low latency and reliability will allow healthcare providers to offer real-time remote patient monitoring, revolutionising patient-centered healthcare.

Through 5G-enabled medical devices and wearables, data can be gathered from patients to assess treatments to improve care and alert doctors of early warning signs to allow for prompt proactive intervention. This new connectivity could drastically improve the quality of life for Australians, especially for those in high-risk categories, like the elderly and people living with ongoing medical conditions, as it will give doctors and nurses the option to monitor a patient in the comfort of their home.

One organisation that has taken strides in remote monitoring to help individuals live more independently at home is the CSIRO, which is currently trailing a Smarter Safer Homes system, a sensor-based in-home monitoring system to service the aged care and supported living sectors. The system builds a picture of a person’s daily routine and detects deviations that may indicate illness or injury through sensors and wireless biomedical devices, sending real-time data to healthcare providers. With 5G, systems like this will start to become more readily available, reliable, and easier to setup through connection to wide area 5G mobile networks.

2. Robotic Surgery

With 5G networks, remote robotic surgery will become an option for Australians, removing the obstacle of distance and giving patients access to specialist treatment, no matter where they are located.

Connected through IoMT, 5G powered robots and devices will deliver lifesaving surgery that wouldn’t have been possible before through the 4G network. In fact, 5G is already facilitating trials of remote operations and procedures through robotic medical technology in major hospitals and research institutes around the world.

The Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research in Liverpool, New South Wales, is currently assessing a remote-controlled robot that can remove blood clots in stroke patients using 5G connectivity, supported by Optus. For patients living in rural and regional areas, this technology could be critical to their survival as it’s faster and more effective than current procedures. Another trial in the UK being conducted by the King’s College London, in partnership with Ericsson, is testing specialised haptic feedback gloves and virtual reality (VR) equipment that connects through 5G to a robotic counterpart, helping specialist surgeons operate on a patient thousands of miles away.

3. Personal Health

Since the pandemic, there has been an increased interest in personal health monitoring. This will only grow with the 5G roll out, with wearables expected to reach one billion by 2022, boosted by the development of 5G technology.

While wearable health devices and smart home health gadgets aren’t new, through the fast, reliable, and high capacity 5G network, you will be able to connect more devices to monitor and manage your physical and mental wellbeing, providing a more holistic view of your health.

You could monitor your diet and various disease markers through connected toilets, like Toto’s Wellness Toilet, track and improve your sleep through a smart bed, like Eight Sleep’s Pod Pro, and even manage dispensing and refilling medication and nutritional supplements via smart medicine cabinets, like BLACK+DECKER’s Pria.

With 5G’s arrival, the possibilities for different types of smart health devices are exponential and with better interoperability they could even help build complete health profiles for individuals that can be regularly shared with healthcare professionals.

4. Emergency Response

The ultra-fast speeds and ultra-low latency of 5G mobile connection will change how we respond to emergencies, especially how medical supplies and assistance will be provided.

Unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones” have been integral for many countries in their response to the pandemic, and through 5G, using them for medical deliveries will become more tangible in Australia. Swoop Aero, which received an Australian 5G Innovation Initiative grant in late September this year, will be trialling aeromedical deliveries in Australia including delivering pathology samples and medical supplies, such as covid-19 vaccines, to hospitals while providing real-time monitoring and notifications using the 5G network. This could mark a change for emergency medical deliveries in Australia, with drones already being used overseas for life saving large-scale deliveries of blood, medicines, medical samples and even organs.

5G-connected ambulances could also become a real possibility in Australia in the not-too-distant future. In collaboration between Ericsson, University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust (UHB), and King’s College London, 5G connected ambulances that enable clinicians to remotely guide paramedics through procedures and make diagnoses using a VR headset and cameras are already being trialled. It is hoped that this transformative technology will increase efficiency, save lives, and reduce the burden on hospital emergency departments.

5. Precision Treatment

AI as a tool for health diagnosis and precision medical treatment is being dramatically improved by 5G. AI, powered by high bandwidth 5G, will help analyse medical imaging and data faster to make diagnoses or point clinicians where to look, and provide a course of treatment tailored to patients, optimising hospitals, and patient care.

At the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC in the United States, they are already implementing this type of technology. In their wireless 5G-enabled building, the Institute is focused on discovering new ways to diagnose and treat cancer using AI algorithms trained to recognise areas of concern and that will eventually even recommend a course of treatment.

AI is also being heavily invested in in Australia, with the federal government announcing last year that it will provide $19 million over three years for artificial intelligence-based medical research projects designed to prevent, diagnose, and treat a range of health conditions, such as eye and cardiovascular diseases, and mental health, including stress, anxiety, and depression. These projects have the potential to lead to significant health benefits for Australians and with ubiquitous 5G, their deployment will be more feasible.

Overall, we can expect 5G to improve the health industry substantially in Australia and there will be many benefits for Australians. 5G will offer better mobility and help the health sector become more productive and efficient, leading the country into the fourth industrial revolution and a new age of medicine and wellbeing.

Louise Hyland is CEO of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association

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