The impact of Covid, vaccine technology and hot topics such as Obamacare and NHS privatisation creep will all have an obvious future effect on healthcare around the world. Perhaps overlooked though is the potential power of a relatively nascent technology: 5G.

In a recent report on 5G in medical devices, data analysis company GlobalData says the healthcare industry stands to benefit “enormously” from the adoption of 5G technology as the increased speeds from 5G networks increase hospital efficiency, improving communication and data sharing between departments, clinics and hospitals.

The tech, the report forecasts, will add low latency, high density and improved reliability, creating new use cases to both consumer and enterprise markets. These capabilities, GlobalData argues, will be fundamental to the provision of emerging technologies such as remote surgery, robotic surgery and applications for augmented reality (AR).

In other words, 5G is likely to not only revolutionise working practises for staff and the handling of patient data, but also the very tools on offer in healthcare facilities. Nascent medtech tools such as surgical robots and AR headsets are now closer than ever to becoming ubiquitous in both private and public institutions, with present-day case studies already effectively arguing for mass deployment in the medical field.

Rural, remote and robotic

With 5G one can expect to see more robots in the operating theatre. According to a GlobalData report on robotics in healthcare, the global robotics market will have surpassed $275bn by 2025. The analysts predict that the number of robotic surgical systems will increase by 6.5% to 12% within the next 10 years.

As the report notes, the relatively new field of robotic surgery is rapidly growing. Surgical robots have been used in orthopaedic procedures like knee and hip replacements, neurosurgery procedures such as minimally invasive spinal fusion surgery, as well as more general surgical procedures. Such robots can be directly controlled by a surgeon and locked in place as needed, allowing the surgeon to rest, thus removing some risk for human error. These medi-bots can also independently carry out pre-planned procedures.

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5G-enabled surgical robots allow for smoother remote operation by humans. Early clinical studies have shown that spine procedures can be conducted remotely on a 5G connection. This may mean patients in more rural areas may one day be able to receive surgery from a remote specialist without the need for extensive travel.

If this sounds far-fetched, it’s worth reminding oneself that robots have already invaded the NHS. Surgical robots from one of the UK’s biggest medical robotics companies, CMR Surgical, are already helping NHS hospitals deliver keyhole surgery for patients.

Such surgical robotics are, in some cases, paired with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms by medical companies. US startup Proprio is an example recently featured by Verdict. Proprio’s flagship product is a surgical navigation system which allows an enhanced and real-time 3D view of the anatomy, made possible in part by the AI solution of computer vision (CV) which gives machines the power of visual recognition in a way that emulates human sight.

With this system, surgeons have the opportunity to see more of a patient’s anatomy and improve their situational awareness. The CV behind Proprio’s AR solution allows surgeons to see inside the anatomy while operating in real-time.

Healthcare in 4D, 5G, AI

With 5G, networks can be virtually sliced to provide a range of different service characteristics for different use cases, and ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC) will support AR use cases in healthcare.

GlobalData forecasts that the global AR market will be worth $76bn by 2030, up from $4bn in 2018. As its analysts write in their report on AR in the health industry, “the healthcare sector is undergoing a digital transformation, fuelled by changing healthcare payor and provider needs,” adding that “AR is gradually making its way into the healthcare sector.”

Surgeons can, for example, benefit from the AR “x-ray vision” granted by US brand Augmedix, with an AR navigation tech that allows them to see a patient’s anatomy through skin and tissue whilst operating.

AR is a useful surgeon’s aid for the visualisation of complex biological processes. EchoPixel’s True 3D software can help healthcare professionals visualise and interact with 3D images that depict human tissue and organs in open space as if they were real objects. Novarad’s OpenSight solution meanwhile renders 2D, 3D and 4D images of patients interactively, while accurately overlaying them directly onto the patient’s body. Both solutions allow for more accurate surgical planning.

Real-life flesh and blood patients can also benefit from AR when distanced from doctors. GlobalData suggests that virtual reality (VR) and AR are “well placed as a therapy product for neuropsychological conditions because virtual simulations of the outside world are highly realistic and immersive, as well as being non-invasive and non-pharmacological.”

The rise of AR in health comes as VR/AR headsets and smart glasses become cheaper, and more AR apps appear on smartphones. Some brands like XRHealth are even sending out headsets to customers to treat ADHD in the States.

While headsets may be an alien concept in the common household, especially so with regards to healthcare, teleconferencing with medical professionals is perhaps becoming more agreeable to consumers after the pandemic’s video conference boom.

5G in remote healthcare

A recent GlobalData report on digital health solutions in neurology points out that “Covid-19 has led to an acceleration of digital health innovation” and that healthcare providers “have been quick to implement alternative solutions to in-person care to ensure patients can access diagnostic and therapeutic services. This has led to significant increases in the use of remote patient monitoring, telemedicine platforms, and virtual clinical trials.”

The pandemic has brought to light 5G’s potential to support telehealth services. Telemedicine requires a network that can support real-time, high-quality videos. 5G-enabled sensors can be used for teleconferencing, allowing physicians to effectively monitor a patient’s vital signs and provide accurate and effective treatments during video calls.

The low latency of 5G also allows real-time remote patient monitoring with the streaming and analysis of patient data from various medical devices. 5G-enabled remote surgery is also being explored, where doctors can perform procedures from a remote location and surgical feedback can be sent to the surgeon far faster than with previous tech.

Speedy smart hospitals

But it won’t just be remote health work that’ll benefit from 5G. For example, the smart hospitals of the future envisioned by KT Corporation and Samsung Medical Center in South Korea would have 5G-connected cameras to allow high-quality video and audio streams of the operating theatre to be shared to other rooms, improving the education of resident physicians.

Additionally, these hospitals would have an internal 5G network, allowing large data files, such as those from diagnostic imaging machines, to be transferred to different departments.

Smart hospitals may also allow patients to have 5G-enabled on-body health monitoring sensors which can allow physicians access to their real-time health metric data without being physically present. This allows staff to react faster to any changes and make better informed decisions regarding treatments.

Current sensors largely rely on the Bluetooth connection standard for data sharing, which can be unreliable, have high latency and struggle with many simultaneous connections. As a result, companies like BioIntelliSense have begun to introduce devices that would allow healthcare staff to move to 5G-enabled sensors, such as 5G-enabled hubs that can reliably connect to multiple sensors at once.

Sound far-fetched? Well, 5G-ready smart hospitals already exist. The UK’s University Hospital Birmingham for example has collaborated with telecom giant BT to equip one of its ambulances with 5G connectivity.

The ambulance used this 5G connection to send a live, high-definition camera feedback to a remote emergency physician for the procedure of placing an ultrasound probe. The physician used the wireless connection to control a robotic glove within the vehicle to guide paramedics in placing the probe. This system also had VR integration, further improving real-time collaboration between the doctor and paramedics.

University Hospital Birmingham also boasts a 5G connection between community intermediate care and acute hospital teams, including digital stethoscopes, ECG and high resolution video, allowing for thorough assessments to be carried out without the need for patients to be physically present and at risk from Covid infection. The increased speeds and improved bandwidth of 5G have allowed this integration of devices and data streams, resulting in faster and more streamlined treatment times and more efficient patient care.

In other words, much like 5G itself, the future of healthcare may already be here.