5G meets medicine: separating fact from fiction

5G has been hailed as the next frontier for medicine, introducing new remote surgery capabilities and expanding patient access to the internet in hospitals. But not everyone is convinced. Chloe Kent takes a look at the realistic impact that 5G could have on the industry.


istening solely to mobile data suppliers, you’d be forgiven for believing that 5G wireless mobile networks are set to completely revolutionise the internet as we know it and give rise to countless new technologies world-over.

According to a GlobalData Thematic Research report, recent years have seen telecom operators struggle to turn growing demand for mobile data services into revenue growth. However, 5G is expected to open up a range of fresh revenue streams, particularly in vertical markets like energy, manufacturing and healthcare.

A 2017 study from Ericsson estimated that the 5G-enabled revenue opportunities for operators would be worth around $582bn by 2026.

It’s true that 5G has the capacity to dramatically improve internet speeds – response times are much faster, with 5G reacting to user commands in just one millisecond whereas 4G takes 45 milliseconds. But whether this will revolutionise the face of health technology as we know it ultimately remains to be seen.

 Enhancing telecoms technology

At the Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona, Vodafone exhibited two new health telecoms technologies it has developed with 5G.

The company has partnered with Barcelona’s San Raffaele hospital to develop 5G ambulances which allow paramedics to stream real-time HD video support from remote specialists while transporting patients. The extremely low latency of Vodafone 5G has also been used to allow specialist clinicians to guide surgeons in the operating room, long-distance but in real time.

Vilicom head of consultancy and solutions Rui Inacio says: “The potential for collaboration is obvious – you can imagine a revered surgeon in the United States guiding a junior surgeon in Australia through a tricky procedure.”

Over in China, 5G has enabled remote surgery to be performed using robotic arms, theoretically expanding patient access to highly specialised operations. In January 2019, a doctor in the southeastern province of Fuijan was able to remove the liver of a laboratory test animal from a remote location 30 miles from the operating theatre. Three months later, People’s Liberation Army General Hospital (PLAGH) chief physician Ling Zhipei took things a step further, operating on the brain of a Parkinson’s disease patient in Beijing from the PLAGH Hainan Hospital 3,000km away.

You can imagine a revered surgeon in the United States guiding a junior surgeon in Australia.

Vodafone head of health market development Jon Lee-Davey says: “Particularly in the case of the connected ambulances, these are practices that can partly be enabled with current technology. But 5G’s low latency and high speed allows multiple data streams to be transmitted continuously, such as vital signs, allowing a much richer dialogue between a specialist and a first responder or surgeon directly attending to a person in need – or from a remote location through the use of a robotic instrument.”

But 5G’s medical applications don’t need to be invasive to be revolutionary.

Inacio says: “Remote controlled ultrasounds have been successfully tested over public 5G networks, offering the potential to speed up diagnoses and reducing the number of ambulance journeys and emergency department visits straining the NHS. Remote patient monitoring and medical device management could offer further convenience for patients. The bandwidth in these new networks will also accommodate for the development of IoT technology that is capable of recording, transmitting and reacting to immense volumes of data.”

 Infrastructure inefficiencies

Alongside these projects, Lee-Davey suggests that Vodafone’s private LTE networks, which use mobile technology unattached to regular network traffic, could expand access to the internet in hospitals by becoming 5G-operated. Deployed in a similar manner to Wi-Fi networks, which many hospitals are currently lacking, these private platforms could leverage 5G to provide both patients and physicians with a better connection.

Campaign for Free Wifi in Hospitals founder John Popham says: “Without internet connection, patients can be cut off from the world, including friends and family, and that can be distressing.”

However, the required infrastructure for 5G may complicate this. Its millimetre wave technology utilises the very high end of the wireless spectrum where there’s a lot of unused bandwidth. However, its signal is much less reliable over long distances and can be easily disrupted by obstacles like trees, people or even rain, which would have little impact on a 4G signal.

The vast majority of the 5G networks currently available are designed for consumer rather than for industry applications.

Popham says: “Hospitals are usually big buildings. Many have metallised windows and metal-frame walls which block Wi-Fi signals. They can also block phone signals from entering the building.”

5G carriers can need up to 20 millimetre access points to cover an urban area which can be catered to with two or three regular signal towers, all of which need to be connected to a wired network. Deploying these extra access points throughout a modern city is already incredibly time consuming and expensive, let alone throughout a hospital building.

Hospitals have traditionally relied on local connections as the primary architecture for their internet networks, as these are already capable of matching the gigabyte speeds boasted by 5G providers. Coming in and installing a personal 5G network throughout a hospital would definitely shake up the status quo, but whether this would be welcomed by clinicians is another matter.

Inacio says: “The most obvious limitation is that we’re in the early stages of 5G’s availability, and so we’re not yet at the point of industry-standard implementation. The vast majority of the 5G networks currently available are designed for consumer rather than for industry applications, operating on sub-6GHz bands. These offer increases in speed, but without the strength and bandwidth needed for cutting edge applications.”

 Not quite reinventing the wheel

It’s fair to say that 5G has the potential to enhance existing technologies to a significant extent, with its high speeds and low latency delivering better wireless connectivity across the board. But that’s all it’s doing – enhancing what is already there.

Operators such as the US network Verizon have been criticised for their framing of 5G, with many commentators feeling it misled patients by describing the technology as ‘helping doctors fight cancer’.

It’s not reinventing the wheel, but reshaping it into something sleeker and more efficient.

What it’s really doing is building upon the foundations laid by the four generations of mobile connectivity which came before. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but reshaping it into something sleeker and more efficient.

Lee-Davey says: “5G is conceptually quite different from previous generations, because it surpasses what is available with existing infrastructure and introduces new concepts such as network slicing. I think our reliance on mobile networks will increase and we don’t yet know all the use cases that it’s going to support. We’re just beginning to see the benefits, but there’s a huge amount more potential there.”