CEO Paul Coffey tells us his thought on how 5G can support the end to end delivery of healthcare.
While Covid-19 has had a colossal impact on NHS hospitals and our emergency services, it has given us a glimpse into the future of 5G healthcare delivery. Despite the misconceptions from some about 5G and its impact on human health, it could in fact underpin a wide range of innovations that will support medical professionals in the delivery of patient care.
Recent data collected by the Royal College of GPs highlighted that at the peak of the pandemic, up to 70% of consultations were carried out by phone or video call – a basic type of telemedicine which has never been so widely adopted.
The current crisis has highlighted significant opportunities to help people using telecommunications technology, and in no area is that truer than healthcare. Across the UK, health boards are faced with the challenge of an ageing population. According to a report from PwC, 68% of over 65s are expected to be living with multiple chronic conditions by 2035.
The effectiveness of remote or 5G healthcare relies on the ability to communicate and gather data required to inform a patient’s diagnosis or treatment. Reliable, 5G mobile networks could be the catalyst for this remote approach to continue and evolve, strengthening links between healthcare providers and rural communities.
Upgrading from 3G or 4G to 5G offers much more than faster internet speeds; new networks can provide more secure and reliable communications channels required to handle the sensitivities of digital healthcare.
Benefits for patients
5G applications in healthcare could change the way people across the country access NHS services. For those most at-risk and those in remote communities, in particular, there is an opportunity to explore how remote monitoring and communication technology could support current care models.
It could ultimately reduce the need for hospital admissions, which are not only stressful for patients, but costly for the care provider.
For example, a telemedicine initiative in Liverpool now connects care home residents to healthcare professionals via a 24-hour video link. While reducing pressures on frontline healthcare staff and local resource costs, the service allows around 90% of patients to remain in their place of residence following a consultation.
5G use cases in healthcare
There are already documented cases of mainstream consumer electronics saving lives; for example, a smart watch which helped detect an underlying heart condition. Using wearables in a wider healthcare context would become more reliable with 5G. Broadly speaking, these devices could be used to collect data and enable real-time decision making, anticipating certain conditions and allowing healthcare teams to intervene, preventing a more serious condition or hospitalisation.
A study from O2 suggests that this type of monitoring could significantly relieve some of the pressures on the NHS, reducing hospital re-admissions by as much as 30% through 5G-enabled aftercare, decreasing overall bed occupancy rates by 6%.
IoT technology – networks of connected devices such as sensors – is also expected to be boosted by the widespread adoption of 5G. In healthcare, this could mean an increased opportunity to collect relevant data that could be used to assess a patient’s condition remotely.
5G in UK hospitals
In 2019, the number of people waiting more than 12 hours at Scottish A&E departments hit record levels. During December, just 83.8% were treated, transferred, or discharged within the target time of four hours.
Across the UK, the health sector is beginning to explore the potential of 5G, with trials underway for connected ambulances and developments in the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). In a hospital setting, 5G could significantly aid digital transformation, making multiple use cases a reality thanks to enhanced network capabilities and reliability.
A partnership between BT and the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, has seen a number of new connected healthcare applications developed and tested. As well as remote diagnostic tools, including ultrasound, digital stethoscopes, and electrocardiograms (ECGs), the team have developed a 5G connected ambulance. Using virtual and augmented reality headsets, clinicians can review a patient’s condition in real-time and give vital instructions to paramedics, while travelling to hospital.
Remote surgery using 5G is another use case that has been widely reported, where robotic-assisted surgical tools are controlled by surgeons from a remote location. It may be some time before we see this adopted widely, however, remote rehabilitation therapy could be used in the near future. This type of rehab uses robotics to support the extremity of rehabilitation exercises, including fine motor skills of limbs and gravity compensation, supported through tailored video and VR programmes.
With a dependable 5G network in place, healthcare professionals can use new technology and connected equipment to their advantage, which would ultimately benefit patients.
Through existing apps and consumer devices, the capabilities of a 5G healthcare model are readily achievable, but its effectiveness will rely on access to powerful and reliable mobile networks.
Safe, dependable 5G technology will be essential to building trust with patients and by building a better-informed network of care providers – from GPs to A&E departments – there is an opportunity to improve patient care, while also creating a more efficient healthcare system.
Join the conversation
To learn more about 5G and the UK healthcare sector, register for our virtual event – Enhancing healthcare through 5G communications – on 14th July 2020 at 9.30am.
The webinar will explore and discuss the qualitative step-change in service coverage, quality and reliability that can be delivered through 5G with presentations from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, BT, Ajenta and Vodafone.
Register here and visit our events page for more 5G 2020 events.