5G is here: how health systems can capitalize on the new cellular standard

By | January 31, 2020

Rollout of 5G technology across the U.S. has begun in earnest. The cellular standard is already working in many major cities, and if isn’t yet up and running in your hospital’s hometown, it probably will be soon.

5G, especially when working as part of edge computing strategy, has some key advantages – low latency, reliability – that make it well-suited to enable big advances in efficacy and efficiency for a variety of healthcare use cases: in-building data management, easier handling of large imaging files, remote patient monitoring and virtual care, and leading-edge tech such as telerobotics and augmented reality.

Fairly soon, 5G could be as widespread and widely-used as WiFi and ethernet. Still, in the nearer term there are several challenges to ensure that healthcare organizations have the right infrastructure in place to take advantage of this cellular spec.

At HIMSS20, Clint Cetti, global director of strategy and innovation at AT&T, will describe some of those challenges – and show how hospitals and health systems should be optimizing their infrastructure and workflows to make the most of 5G’s promising use cases. He answered some questions recently about 5G and edge computing.

Q. What are the most promising aspects of 5G for healthcare? What can it help hospitals and health systems do better?

A. 5G will eventually change how healthcare workers and patients interact with the data created throughout the patient’s journey. Gigabyte imaging files rendered into diagnostic animations can be provided to mobile devices over a 5G network using millimeter wave spectrum (“5G+”) for clinician review in seconds without requiring them to return to a wired terminal or greatly impact the wired network to move large files around. Clinicians are free to move within the 5G+ footprint and not lose the quality of the data and visuals that they rely on.

The lower latency and ultra-reliable communications built into the standards and architecture of 5G networks, together with other 5G related technologies, also allows for greater granularity of medical data acquisition.

These shorter intervals of measurement during a patient’s journey can show trajectories that took longer to detect and can now provide both health AI systems and clinicians greater insights to prescribe earlier interventions and improve outcomes. For example, micro intervals and localized analysis of ventilator data may allow clinicians to remove support sooner, which statistically has indicated better recoveries in patients.

One aspect of 5G+ that is bubbling up to the surface in discussions with clients and partners recently is the impact on local device processing and storage when lower latency, high bandwidth environments allow for computing to be performed “at the edge” and content can be transmitted faster than ever before over cellular networks.

When high-resolution rendering of spatial compute environments for augmented reality is performed locally to a device, the graphic processing power is limited due to the form factor. When edge computing systems can process the rendering on large GPUs and transmit the visual and audio outputs to mobile devices, the impact from the device’s resources is minimized.

This new way of processing visual environments also frees developers from the limitation of mobile processors and battery life impact concerns. We have only begun to understand what is possible with 5G. We must now question everything.

The ultra-fast speed and lower latency of 5G+ will allow for mobile transfer of large files such as MRIs. This allows clinicians to review results outside the four walls of the hospital within the 5G+ footprint.

In our booth at HIMSS, AT&T will demo a 4G vs 5G+ speed test. When you see the results, you can appreciate what this will mean for areas such as telehealth and patient monitoring within the 5G+ footprint.

Q. For those who may not understand, what makes 5G different from the wireless specs we’re used to?

A. 5G antennas can connect exponentially more devices than 4G antennas. The ability for in-building 5G cellular networks, combined with localized edge compute nodes could theoretically allow medical operations to be conducted from virtually every device in a hospital using cellular.

More and more medical devices are not just becoming connected but will also be used in dual environments both in the hospital and over time more so in homes. The transition of medical devices from hospitals to home healthcare environments dictates the standardization to a single communications type.

An example is that postoperative physical therapy units inside of hospitals will be able to use spatial computing to augment the reality of the therapy environments and affect the behaviors of learning as muscle memories are reconstructed in learning to walk again.

Those same units one day might be used in the home for ongoing gamified physical therapy content that not only reduces costs but tracks usage and improves patient experience.

Q. What should these providers be doing to better prepare themselves to capitalize on 5G?

A. Given that 5G was born in and operated through software as opposed to proprietary hardware systems, the speed at which network service updates, improvements, new configurations and standards releases can be implemented will mean that all aspects from service to operations should be accelerated.

The impact on business is that those who are able to take advantage of newly implemented 5G capabilities the fastest and have scalable innovation pipeline programs have a greater chance of differentiating themselves in their industry areas ahead of the competition and staying there.

It also means that in healthcare we must never be satisfied with the improvements of outcomes that were achieved yesterday but purposefully strive to find what we can be better today.

Q. What are some of the most promising and achievable healthcare use cases for 5G and Edge in the near-term?

A. We are currently working with a few of our healthcare clients on various 5G use cases.

Rush System for Health in Chicago signed a trial agreement to bring the first standards-based 5G enabled hospital to the U.S. The vision is to create the “Hospital of the Future” – and the work is underway. 5G+ will be utilized in parts of the hospital during the testing of various use cases, to determine how 5G+’s ultrafast speeds and lower latency can bring to life the smart hospital:

  • Large image file transfers
  • Virtual visits with doctors
  • AR used in staff education and training

AT&T’s MEC services enable Rush to manage its cellular traffic over both its local network and its wide area network. This allows Rush to better satisfy network communications and application processing needs for its data, enhance the various use cases across its system, and help improve the patient experience.

Also, AT&T and VITAS Healthcare have signed a trial agreement to study the effects of virtual reality and augmented reality on hospice patients, and how 5G technology could enable that experience. 

The goal of the study is to help reduce chronic pain and anxiety for hospice patients. Calming and distraction content loaded wirelessly and delivered over VR/AR goggles is being studied.

Q. The session description mentions concepts such as telerobotics and extended reality, which may sound like sci-fi to some providers. How close are technologies like these from common deployment, and what can they enable?

A. Pioneering in technologies such as telerobotics can only be made possible when breakthroughs in mobile communications are made such as in the case of 5G. AT&T can provide these capabilities and work with device manufactures to integrate the right communications the right way into these systems.

Healthcare is being cautious, and rightfully so, about what procedures and environments should be targeted and tested in use cases today and what training needs to be provided in the clinician academic pipelines for the healthcare worker of tomorrow.

I believe certain noninvasive procedures, that are used in current testing phases, will eventually exit the production procedure pipelines first, but like the learning curve and trust gap of autonomous cars, we must start humbly and slowly. I believe my children will experience the fruits of this great endeavor and will come to expect as typical outcomes, what we today refer to as miracles.

Clint Cetti will discuss the challenges and opportunities of 5G infrastructure in his HIMSS20 session, “5G: Next-Generation Cellular for the Healthcare Enterprise.” It’s scheduled for Wednesday, March 11, from 11:30 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. in room W304E.

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